How do you deal with negative emotions when stressful situations present? Do you try to forget the unpleasant feelings altogether, or can you objectively identify what kind of emotions are appearing within?
What is Emotional Differentiation?
There is a helpful technique in regulating our negative emotions, called ‘emotional differentiation.’ This term is used as the 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, as we only start with very straight-forward single emotions to identify with. However, from childhood to adolescence, our emotion-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. As we grow into adulthood and gain more experience with complex emotions, our emotion-differentiation skills tend to go back up again. Emotion-differentiation skills are also crucial in building our future emotional intelligence.
Why is Emotional Differentiation Important?
We Can’t Fix What We Don’t Understand
As adults, we all vary in our levels of emotion-differentiation skills. A 2012 study at Michigan University asked participants to identify and note their emotions throughout the day for a week. Results showed that emotion- 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”. Unless we can clearly identify the core of our negative emotions, it becomes a challenge to help ourselves.
It Helps Us Better Cope
Another 2015 joint study by George Mason University and Northeastern University found that emotional differentiation correlated with how good we could cope in intensely stressful situations.
- People with LOW emotion-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 emotion-differentiation skills naturally down-regulated their neural reactivity in the brain regions that formed negative feelings. Thus, they experienced less anxiety and depressive disorders.
These findings demonstrate that the experience of a negative emotion widely varies depending on our skills. This is an essential developmental processing skill that reduces our psychological problems and increases our sense of well-being.
How Do I Practice Emotional Differentiation?
Identify Negative Emotions
All of the above research teaches us that we should never over-simplify our negative emotions. 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. Are you feeling angry? If so, what’s one of the root emotions that’s causing this anger? A focus on identifying these feelings can instantly steal our attention away from experiencing the damaging effects of negativity.
The Negative Emotion List
However, it’s not easy to immediately identify our feelings while in the heat of the moment. This is where a list of negative emotions comes in handy as a reference. 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.
- Frustration / Irritation
Of course, there are many more emotions, and complex emotions can have more than one label. The lines between the emotion groups can be blurry too, as some emotions may overlap groups. Create group categories and labels that work best for you. Write them down on a piece of paper or on post-its. Whenever you feel stressed, take a look at the list of words and try to see if you can identify and organize where your feelings stem. Identifying and understanding feelings is the cathartic step towards better coping and self-regulation.
If we want to help ourselves, we first need to allow ourselves to understand how we feel. As unpleasant as it may seem 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. Pull out your chart of feelings to find better coping methods that best deal with that emotion.
Images: UnsplashDemiralp, 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 Science, 23(11), 1410–1416. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612444903
Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414550708
Reuell, P. (2018, September 21). Harvard researchers examine evolution of emotion differentiation. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/09/harvard-researchers-examine-evolution-of-emotion-differentiation/
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 https://web.csulb.edu/%7Etstevens/anxiety,_anger,_and_depression.htm