3.6 Mastering Emotions (Emotion Regulation)

Emotion Regulation

The term “emotion regulation” refers to a range of strategies that people may use to try to “master” their emotions both in the heat of the moment and more long-term. The expression  “mastering emotions”, as used by Feldman Barrett (2017a), appears to portray a more positive view than “emotion regulation”, because the expression of “mastering” embraces the agency of those involved in emotional experiences. The idea of emotions needing to be regulated/controlled are based on the the triune brain model. This model proposes that emotions are localised to the limbic system, which is thought to be more ancient than our “highly developed” rational neo-cortex and which needs to be managed by the latter. As noted in Chapter 1.2, the localisation of emotions to one particular area, as well as the limbic system as such, have been proven wrong by neuroscience research. Nevertheless, emotion regulation is the main term used in relevant literature, so we will use this term throughout this topic.

Please watch the following video [6:09] by Sam Hardy (used with permission) to learn more about what emotion regulation means:

As noted in the video, emotion regulation can include:

  • initiating an emotional experience (e.g., crying when feeling sad)
  • inhibiting certain behaviours that may otherwise form part of an emotional experience (shouting at someone or punching someone)
  • avoiding certain places and people where you are likely to experience emotions
  • reducing duration of an emotional experience
  • using selective attention to focus away from an emotional stimulus
  • distraction: switching attention from a stimulus to internal thoughts
  • cognitive reappraisal: changing the meaning of a stimulus (e.g., from negative to neutral, see e.g. research by Halperin et al. (2013)
  • suppress the display of emotion to decrease the experience of an emotion
  • response modulation – change how you respond/react/express emotion (Freberg, 2019; Nair, 2008)

How well an individual manages to regulate their emotions in a specific situation depends on several factors, including:

  • how the individual construes the situation in which self-regulation is attempted (e.g., is it personally meaningful?)
  • the expectations and beliefs that become activated (e.g., do they believe they can accurately predict and control events?)
  • the feelings and emotions triggered and experienced (e.g., anxiety will undermine attempts at self-regulation).
  • the goals and values engaged (e.g., how motivated are they to regulate?)
  • the self-control skills of the person involved.

Another factor that has a major effect on our ability to regulate emotions, both in a situation and more broadly, is the state of our body. Feldman Barrett (2017a) explains that our emotions are based on how we predict the world around us. These predictions are again influenced by our “body budget”. If our body budget is out of whack, for example, because of sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, chronic stress or illness, then our predictions will take these body budget needs into account, which again may lead to prediction error in a given situation (Feldman Barrett, 2017b). For example, “overreacting” in a conflict situation by yelling at a person who may not have deserved this in hindsight, may have been caused by physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation or stress even before the person overreacting entered the conflict situation. Therefore, Feldman Barrett suggests keeping your body budget in balance (including eating healthily, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, engaging in yoga and mindfulness practices) as one key strategy to master one’s emotions.

Besides, Feldman Barrett has dedicated two chapters on what people can do to improve their “mastering emotions” skills. For example, she notes that “emotional granularity”, a term that describes the ability to distinguish different emotions at a very nuanced level (e.g., rather than just saying that they are happy, people might be able to distinguish whether they feel blissful, ecstatic, content, blessed, etc. significantly contributes to emotion regulation. She further suggests that people can increase emotional granularity  by:

    • exposing yourself to different experiences (travelling, reading books, watching movies)
    • unpacking and describing in detail the range of feelings associated with a stimulus
    • inventing your own emotion concepts

Feldman Barrett also discusses how people can “change predictions to cultivate empathy”, which is relevant to conflict management. She refers to the organisation Seeds of Peace, which engages young people from countries/cultures that are in serious conflict, like Palestinians and Israelis, and Indians and Pakistans, in activities like sports and leadership training. Through these safe encounters with each other, these young people are able to form new experiences, which again may change their predictions in the future.

Emotion Regulation Strategies

Since we considered the physiological dimension of an emotional experience in some detail in topic 3.3, we now want to explore how we may be able to regulate our physiological responses when we identify and perceive an emotional stimulus. Please watch Sam Hardy’s video [12:08] on “regulating the physiological side of emotions” (video used with permission):

If you want to learn more about specific emotion regulation strategies beyond the physiological side, you may want to watch Sam Hardy’s video [14:43] on emotion regulation strategies more generally (video used with permission):


Another strategy that is thought to help the mastering of our emotions and that has gained momentum in the last decade is mindfulness. Neuroscience research can help explore and investigate the neuronal effects of mindfulness to improve emotion-regulation, especially for individuals who tend to act aggressively and use violent behaviours. Several studies using positron-emission tomography (PET), (functional) magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and/or MRI of individuals who had participated in mindfulness-based practices identified increased functionality of structures involved in emotion regulation, including the ACC and PFC (Bremner et al., 2017; Gotink et al., 2016; Tang et al., 2010). Hölzel et al. (2007) found that particularly the rostral part of the ACC, and the medial PFC showed greater activation in individuals engaged in regular mindfulness activities like meditation. These two areas have been identified as particularly important for emotion regulation (Grecucci et al., 2015; Hölzel et al., 2011; Hölzel et al., 2007). Some publications note that the level of experience in meditation influences which brain areas are engaged in emotion regulation (Grecucci et al., 2015; Hölzel et al., 2016).

Several studies also found increased connectivity between the PFC and the limbic system after mindfulness practice (Bremner et al., 2017; Gotink et al., 2016). An imbalance between these two systems has been found as a source of aggressive behaviour. A systematic review of studies using fMRI and MRI also found decreased functionality of the amygdala after individuals had engaged in mindfulness practices, which is thought to contribute to better emotion regulation (Gotink et al., 2016). These findings suggest that mindfulness practice may improve the functionality and connectivity of exactly those brain structures that tend to malfunction in aggressive and violent individuals, as has also been noted by Morley et al. (2019).

As a real-life example, research assessing aggression and violence levels in domestic violence perpetrators found a significant reduction in psychological and physical aggression after convicted perpetrators participated in a mindfulness-based program (Gillions et al., 2019; Nesset et al., 2020; Zarling et al., 2015).

To learn more about neuroscience, mindfulness, and emotions, please watch the following TedTalk [17:53]:

Supporting Others to Master their Emotions

Anyone involved in the management of conflict, e.g., a conflict practitioner or manager of a work team, should not only be interested in a better understanding of how to manage their own emotions but also of managing  and/or supporting others to master their emotions. While there appears to be consensus amongst conflict practitioners and theorists that it is important to be aware of emotions in conflict resolution processes, there is less agreement on how exactly they should be “handled”. Should they be openly acknowledged, embraced and ‘tackled head-on’ during the conflict resolution process (Williams & Hinshaw, 2018 citing Lieberman 2012)? Or should they be handled more subtly, e.g., by focusing on needs rather than emotions, since dealing with negative emotions directly may complicate the process and may make reaching agreements more difficult (see, for example, Fisher & Shapiro, 2005).

If and how we address emotions in a conflict resolution process may depend on the cultural context and cultural background of the parties involved. For example, Westerman and Wettinger (1997) note that Aboriginal peoples may not be used to verbally explore emotions. There are lots of other factors to consider, which we can unfortunately not address in this eBook. However, we will now look at how knowledge about the “stress response” or “fight and flight response” as a specific psychological reaction associated with physical or psychological stress and/or danger may be applied to conflict resolution processes.

Supporting Parties to Master the Stress Response in Conflict/Conflict Resolution Processes

As noted earlier, stress may be experienced in response to obvious physical danger/threat, but may also follow the exposure to a psychological, emotional, or social experience. When two parties are in conflict and are interacting with each other, for example when participating in a mediation, a strong negative emotional reaction by one party might be perceived as a threat (or else) by the other party and might support the party to experience stress.

According to Tanz & McClintock (2017) “the two most potent psychological stressors are being negatively evaluated by others and not having a sense of control” (p. 29). The latter is of interest in the context of mediation and coaching, since the feeling of being in control can be supported through these processes. We have previously noted that perceptions are subjective and may be altered, which means that a person may be able to change the meaning of a stimulus from causing stress to being a neutral or even positive stimulus. This thought is important for conflict resolution processes, which may provide opportunities for parties to alter the meaning of stimuli (Tanz & Mcclintock, 2017).

To see how neuroscience and psychology knowledge and research can help us explore and rethink the mediation process and its impact on mediators and parties involved, please now read:


Tanz, J. S., & Mcclintock, M. K. (2017). The Physiologic Stress Response During Mediation. Ohio State Journal On Dispute Resolution 32(1), 29-74.



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