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Emotion regulation practice: Class discussion

sue_frantz
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Early in my Intro Psych teaching career, I didn’t cover sleep or stress probably because I thought that these more applied topics were less important than the core theories. When I finally noticed how sleep-deprived and stressed my students were, I had a DOH! moment. That was the beginning of what became a years-long shift in how I thought about Intro Psych. These days, I choose the content of my Intro Psych course based on what I think my neighbors need to know about psychology (more on that thinking here).

Emotion regulation is a topic that my neighbors need to know about, so I’m adding it to my Intro Psych course. Examples abound—in the news, on Reddit, on Failblog—of people acting on emotion without seemingly to have made an attempt at moderating their emotions. They lash out at whoever happens to be in their line of fire. In some cases, the fire is literal. By naming the emotion regulation strategies and giving students some practice at thinking through how the strategies can be employed in different situations, students may be better able to moderate their emotions when needed. (There’s an empirical question for anyone interested in studying the long-term effects of taking Intro Psych.)

While it makes sense to cover emotion regulation in the emotion chapter, it would fit fine in the stress and coping chapter.

For an excellent overview of emotion regulation, take a look at McRae and Gross’s (2020) open access article “Emotion regulation.”

For your students, start by describing and giving examples of the five emotion regulation strategies. Note that the strategies are sequential. Which strategy is employed depends on how deep into the emotional event we are.

With situation selection, we choose our situations to elicit or not elicit certain emotions. For example, if we find particular family members aggravating, we may choose not to be around them thereby decreasing the likelihood of us feeling aggravated. Or if we have a friend whose company tends to generate positive emotions, we may ask them to meet us for coffee thereby increasing the likelihood of us feeling happy.

When we cannot avoid a particular situation, we may be able to alter it. In situation modification, we attempt to change the situation. For example, if we are stuck sharing a holiday dinner with family members who we find aggravating, we can ask other family members to run interference so that our time interacting with the aggravators is minimized.

At the holiday dinner, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves seated next to one of our aggravating family members. Using attentional deployment, we shift our attention to other things. Rather than listen to the ranting of this family member, we stop paying attention to what they are saying. Instead, we focus on the words spoken by the family member on the other side of us, we silently sing to ourselves, we mentally review all of the concepts we learned in our Intro Psych course, or we count backward from 10,000 by threes.

It's now a month after the holiday dinner, and memories of those aggravating comments keep popping up. It’s now time to try cognitive change. Is it possible to think of the comments and the people who made them in a different way? Television producer Norman Lear—who turned 100 in July 2022—titled his memoir Even This I Get to Experience. It is an apt title, because it really does seem to be how he approaches life. He views negative events not so much as negative, but as opportunities to experience something new. That dinner with aggravating relatives? Even that we got to experience. And we got some good stories out of it!

The last emotion regulation strategy is response modulation. When all of the other strategies fail us, and we experience the emotion in all of its unmitigated glory, we can reduce the strength of the emotion by doing something else, such as lifting weights, playing pickleball, or eating an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies. Now is a good time to note that some response modulation strategies are better for us than others.

Now it is your students’ turn. Give students a minute to think about an event that could generate strong negative emotions. It could be an event that has occurred or an event that is anticipated. It could be an event from their own lives or from the lives of family or friends. In a face-to-face or virtual class, ask students to gather in groups of three or four. In an online course, a discussion board works fine. Ask students to share their events with each other. For each event, ask students to consider how each emotion regulation strategy could be or could have been used. Invite groups to share from their discussion their favorite event and emotion regulation strategy.

 

Reference

McRae, K., & Gross, J. J. (2020). Emotion regulation. Emotion, 20(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000703

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.