How do you deal with negative emotions during stressful situations? Do you try to forget the unpleasant feelings altogether, or can you objectively identify what kind of emotions are arising within? It can be a struggle to reduce stress levels when you don’t really understand why you’re feeling bad. Keep reading to find out how to better control your emotions using “emotional differentiation”.

What is Emotional Differentiation?

One helpful technique in regulating our negative emotions is called emotional differentiation. In short, this refers to our ability to identify and label our emotions. Ph.D. at Harvard University, Erik Nook explains, “Some people are very specific in making sense of what they’re feeling, whereas other people might just say they feel bad, but can’t be more specific than that.”

Nook says our ability to differentiate emotions score high as a child. This is because we only start with very straight-forward single emotions to identify with. However, from childhood to adolescence, our emotional differentiation skills decrease to an all-time low. This is due to the shifting developments we deal with to understand complex emotions. This is part of the reason why we struggle to make sense of emotions during our teen phase. Then, as we grow into adulthood and gain more experience with complex emotions, our emotional differentiation skills tend to improve again. In other words, you learn how to control your emotions as you grow older. Emotional differentiation skills are also crucial in building our future emotional intelligence.

Identifying negative emotions are essential to better mental health.

Why is Emotional Differentiation Important?

We Can’t Fix What We Don’t Understand

As adults, we all vary in our levels of emotional differentiation skills. For instance, a 2012 study at Michigan University asked participants to identify and note their emotions throughout the day for a week. As a result, emotional differentiation skills widely differed between depressed and healthy individuals.

  • People vulnerable to stress have a vague understanding of how they feel and have more trouble differentiating their negative emotions.
  • People resilient to stress are skilled at differentiating their negative emotions.

In other words, mentally healthy people put labels such as “anxiety” or “sadness” to their negative emotions. In contrast, people prone to stress tend to leave them unarticulated in one pile as “bad”. Therefore, unless we can clearly identify the core of our negative emotions, it becomes a challenge to help ourselves or reduce stress. Overall, the more you learn how to identify your emotions, the more you learn how to control your emotions in a healthy way.

Emotional Control and Coping Skills

Another 2015 joint study by George Mason University and Northeastern University found that emotional differentiation correlated with how well we could cope in intensely stressful situations.

  • People with LOW emotional differentiation skills were up to 50% more likely to resort to unhealthy coping methods such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behaviors.
  • People with HIGH emotional differentiation skills naturally down-regulated their neural reactivity in the brain regions that formed negative feelings. Thus, they experienced less anxiety and depressive disorders.

According to these findings, the experience of a negative emotion widely varies depending on our skills. Thus, this is an essential developmental processing skill that reduces our psychological problems and increases our sense of wellbeing.

Emotional differentiation skills can determine your wellbeing and happiness.

How to Control Your Emotions Using Emotional Differentiation

Identify Negative Emotions

All of the above research teaches us that we should never over-simplify our negative emotions. Moreover, carrying a vague sense of terrible feelings will not help us in any way. Instead, let’s try to ask questions that assess these negative emotions. For example, are you feeling angry? If so, what’s one of the root emotions that’s causing this anger? In effect, focusing on identifying these feelings can instantly steal our attention away from experiencing the damaging effects of negativity. Consequently, you will have a better grasp on how to control your emotions and reduce stress in an appropriate manner.

The Negative Emotion List

However, it’s not easy to immediately identify our feelings in the heat of the moment. In this case, a reference list of negative emotions comes in handy. According to psychologist and California State University professor Tom G. Stevens, our primary negative emotions can be grouped into three main groups of anxiety, anger, and depression.


  • Stress
  • Nervousness
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Inadequacy
  • Shame
  • Loneliness
  • Uneasiness


  • Fear
  • Frustration / Irritation
  • Resentment
  • Hate
  • Annoyance
  • Jealousy
  • Disgust


  • Unhappiness
  • Sadness
  • Despair
  • Low-motivation
  • Apathy
  • Tiredness
  • Helplessness

Emotional Control Takes Practice

Of course, there are many more emotions, and complex emotions can have more than one label. The lines between the emotion groups can also be blurry, as some emotions may overlap groups. In essence, try to create group categories and labels that work best for you. Write them down on a piece of paper or on post-its. Whenever you need to reduce stress, take a look at the list of words and try to see if you can identify and organize the source of your feelings. Above all, ientifying and understanding feelings is the cathartic step towards better understanding how to control your emotions.

How to control your emotions in the best way?

Overall, if we want to help ourselves, we must first allow ourselves to understand how we feel. Although it may seem unpleasant to explore negative emotions, this is an essential step in developing our emotional intelligence skills. Next time you feel “bad” don’t discard it so quickly. Instead, pull out your chart of feelings to find better coping methods and figure out how best to control your emotions.

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Images: Unsplash

Demiralp, E., Thompson, R. J., Mata, J., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Barrett, L. F., Ellsworth, P. C., Demiralp, M., Hernandez-Garcia, L., Deldin, P. J., Gotlib, I. H., & Jonides, J. (2012). Feeling Blue or Turquoise? Emotional Differentiation in Major Depressive Disorder. Psychological Science23(11), 1410–1416.

Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation. Current Directions in Psychological Science24(1), 10–16.

Reuell, P. (2018, September 21). Harvard researchers examine evolution of emotion differentiation. Harvard Gazette.

Stevens, T. G. (n.d.). Choose To Be Happy and Overcome Negative Emotions such as anxiety, anger, or depression. You Can Choose To Be Happy. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from,_anger,_and_depression.htm