What Should We Do with Our Feelings?

We all have feelings, but what should we do with them, especially when we’re upset? Should we analyze them, or should we ignore them?

According to University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, the best way to move ahead emotionally is to analyze our feelings, and apparently the best way to analyze them is by stepping back a ways and getting a little perspective on the matter.  

With University of California, Berkeley, colleague Ozlem Ayduk, Kross did a series of studies that show the benefits of analyzing depressive feelings from a “psychologically distanced perspective.” 

Kross, a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and an assistant professor of psychology, said that humans have the ability to review their mistakes, but that doing so repeatedly tends to be a dead-end to negativity. “It can be very helpful to take a mental time-out, to sit back and try to review the situation from a distance,” said Kross. Buddhists, transcendental meditators, and others have been doing this since time began, but we can all learn to do it, he said. 

“Using a thermostat metaphor is helpful to many people. When negative emotions become overwhelming, simply dial the emotional temperature down a bit in order to think about the problem rationally and clearly,” he said.

Kross, who is teaching a class on self-control this fall at U-M, has published two papers on the topic this year. One provides experimental evidence that self-distancing techniques improve cardiovascular recovery from negative emotions. Another shows that the technique helps protect against depression.

In the second study, the researchers randomly assigned 141 participants to one of three groups (“immersed-analysis,” “distraction,” and “distanced-analysis”). Each group used a different strategy to cope with a guided imagery exercise during which they recalled an experience that made them feel overwhelmed by sadness and depression.

Participants returned to the lab either one day or one week later. The “immersed-analysis” and the “distraction” participants didn’t do nearly as well in the long term as the “distanced-analysis” participants.  Distraction and distanced-analysis were equally effective in the short term, but the long-term results were different. Those who had used the distanced-analysis approach continued to show lower levels of depression than those who had used self-immersed analysis and distraction.

These findings support the researchers’ hypothesis that distanced-analysis not only helps people cope with intense feelings in the short term, but also helps people work through negative experiences over time.

Listen to a podcast with researcher Ethan Kross 

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