Ideas
January 20, 2022 7:05 AM EST
Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist and former faculty member of the California Institute of Technology, is the author of Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, among many other books.

In September 1965, James Stockdale was a naval wing commander on his third tour of combat duty over North Vietnam. Flying just above the treetops at nearly 600 miles-per-hour, his A-4 Skyhawk jet ran into a barrage of flak. The plane caught fire and Stockdale ejected.

Upon landing he was captured by North Vietnamese troops who beat him so badly that he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Then, he was hauled off to a North Vietnamese prison where he was held for seven and a half years, and tortured 15 times.

Those years were bound to take an emotional toll, but Stockdale was a rock. He became the clandestine leader of what would grow to be a prison population of nearly 500 pilots and, after the war ended, rose to the rank of vice-admiral and was Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election. To what did Stockdale attribute his resilience, and even his survival?

He said it was his ability to manage emotion.

If you ask people—especially men—about strategies for dealing with the emotion of a dire situation, the most common advice will be to distract yourself or find some other way to curb and suppress the feeling. Stockdale noted that, in his prison camp, those who took that approach didn’t fare very well. Indeed, research psychologists have found that, rather than aiding coping, emotional suppression tends to exacerbate distress. In its place they’ve identified and studied several other strategies that do work.

Stockdale’s approach was not to focus on when the ordeal might end, or the ways in which he could change it his plight, but on precisely the opposite: recognizing that it might last indefinitely and that he could do nothing about it.

Psychologists today call that coping mechanism “acceptance,” but it dates back to the Stoics of ancient Greece. They warned against wasting energy on what is outside your control. You can lessen emotional pain, they argued, if you accept that the “worst” may happen and focus only on what you can do to respond in a positive way. That allows emotion to motivate you rather than sabotaging you.

Consider anger. It would be silly to get angry at the rain because we can’t do anything about it. But we often do get angry if someone mistreats us. We usually can’t control or change that person any more than we can banish the rain, so that is equally silly. The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” To accept that is liberating, for to depend on no one except yourself to satisfy your desires means you are in charge of your own happiness. The strategy of acceptance is exactly that—taking charge of your life, learning to work on those things that are within your power to accomplish or change and not to waste energy on things you cannot.

The Stoics espoused acceptance as a philosophy, but today research psychologists have documented its effectiveness. In one study students were recruited to play a simple matching game as part of an experiment that tested their resolve. The key to the research was that the game would occasionally be interrupted and the subjects given a choice: continue playing but receive a painful electric shock, or give up without making it to the end. The shocks were of increasing magnitude and duration.

The subjects were divided into two groups, and both were briefed before the game began. One group was trained to deal with the pain by distracting themselves. The other group had an equal degree of training, but was trained to accept the pain. The result? The subjects who practiced acceptance played significantly longer before quitting. Such studies validate what the Stoics recognized, but our understanding of the process is deeper today because new technologies have allowed us to identify the brain structures and mechanisms behind the behavior.

In part due to those new technologies, the academic study of emotion regulation took off in the early 2000s, with thousands of papers investigating the efficacy of different approaches. The most powerful, in addition to acceptance, are reappraisal and expression.

Imagine you’re driving to a business meeting and you run into a street blocked by construction. You get lost trying to follow the detour and end up 20 minutes late. You might respond by thinking, “Why can’t those idiots provide clear directions?!” Such thoughts could make you angry. Alternatively, you might blame yourself, thinking “Why am I always getting lost? What’s wrong with me?” That response might make you frustrated. Each of those negative appraisals of the roadblock and its consequences probably has a bit of truth to it, and, chances are, one of the interpretations will be dominant and determine the emotion you feel.

This is how emotions work—making sense of what just happened is one of the phases your brain goes through as an emotional reaction develops. Psychologists call that phase “appraisal.” Some appraisal goes on in your unconscious mind, but it is also occurs on the conscious level and that’s where you can intervene: if there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions, why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want? That’s “reappraisal.”

In this case, for example, you might guide yourself to think such thoughts as “People won’t care if I’m late because there are many others at the meeting.” Or “This won’t bother anyone because they know I am usually on time.” Altering the course of how your brain makes sense of things is a way of short-circuiting the cycle that leads to an unwanted emotion.

The third powerful strategy is expression. Ever notice how, if you are angry with someone, the act of writing them a blistering email defuses that anger, especially if you don’t send it? That’s expression.

Most people are familiar with this approach, but surveys taken by research psychologists show that most people think it doesn’t work. It does. In recent studies it’s been shown that expression has such wide and diverse effects as lowering the distress felt after viewing disturbing photos and videos, calming the anxiety of people who are nervous about public speaking, and reducing the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The most striking study of expression was one done over Twitter. In that, the researchers studied 109,943 subjects who had made a tweet that included an unambiguous statement expressing a negative feeling—for example, “I feel sad.” The researchers then obtained, for each of those tweeters, all tweets made in the six hours prior to the expression of emotion, and in the six hours following it. They found that, just after the tweeter had expressed his or her feelings, there was a rapid decline in the emotion intensity of the later tweets. The tweet had defused the bad feeling. What anecdotal and laboratory evidence had suggested had now been verified by monitoring the emotional pulse of a hundred thousand Twitter users.

There are emotional reactions that empower you and those that disempower you. Empowering emotions help you discover the lessons of every situation, and help you move toward your goals. Disempowering interpretations tie you to negativity and get in the way of your goals. Given the benefits of being able to manage your emotion, it’s not surprising that over time people have employed many methods for achieving that end. Some work, others don’t. Only in the last decade or two have research psychologists focused on sorting that out by studying and validating the efficacy of the various approaches.

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