We Don’t Know: How to Train Emotion Regulation

Bryan Denny, assistant professor of psychological sciences, searches for ways to make emotion regulation interventions more targeted and effective.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

I’m really interested in how we regulate our emotions — how people cope with things like a global pandemic, stress in the workplace or the death of a loved one. There’s never just one strategy for that, nor just one type of response. If the same negative emotional situation were to happen for 100 people, you might get 100 different responses.

Yet being able to cope with those feelings and somehow manage your response to them is critical for making it through the day. It’s deeply connected with not only mental health, but physical health as well — feeling deep stress and being unable to calm yourself down is associated with things like risk for cardiovascular disease.

At the moment, there are plenty of evidence-based therapies for people who have trouble dealing with their emotions. Each of them can be very effective. But in many cases, they take months of in-person sessions with a clinician, and they can often be quite expensive for patients. So how do we improve on them? How can we potentially streamline them and make them more effective?

At the moment, there are plenty of evidence-based therapies for people who have trouble dealing with their emotions. Each of them can be very effective. But in many cases, they take months of in-person sessions with a clinician, and they can often be quite expensive for patients.

Doing that will involve answering some very big questions. What are the specific psychological mechanisms that make a therapy work for an individual? What happens in an individual’s brain that underlies improvement in their response? Do those psychological and neurobiological mechanisms vary from person to person and from setting to setting? And do they change between different demographics?

In order to improve our standards of care and our ability to reach those who may benefit, it will be really important for us to figure out how emotion regulation interventions work in more detail. If we can reveal which elements cause the most impact for specific individuals in specific situations, we can potentially use that information to design more personalized approaches.

With those sorts of tools, we’d be able to get more bang for the buck in evidence-based therapies. We could tailor treatments to each individual, using specific strategies that we know are likely to work for them. Doing that would let us provide relief more economically to a wider group of people and give them the help they need in potentially much shorter periods of time. — As told to David Levin