9 Ways to Test and Improve Your Emotional Control

Every time you “lose it,” whether by becoming overwhelmed by anger, laughter, or anxiety, your happiness and your relationships stand to suffer. It’s okay for toddlers to become instantly enraged when a sibling takes a toy away from them, or for teenagers to get a case of the giggles at a friend’s faux pas. As adults, we’re expected to hold our emotions in check, or at least cover them up, so they don’t make us look foolish, immature, or unreliable.

A considerable amount of research on emotion regulation attempts to identify the factors that determine who is able to do so and who is not, but much of it is based on the rather untrustworthy use of self-report instruments. As we know, people are unable to determine their strengths and weaknesses when no one is there to verify their responses. It’s also not clear from a questionnaire whether people are all that good at doing what they say they can. A new interview-based measure of emotion regulation addresses the limitations of self-report and also provides practical ways to apply this important concept to your own life.

Based on the premise that individuals’ self-reports aren’t the best way to test their emotion regulation, Auburn University’s Daniel Lee and colleagues (2017) developed an alternate approach, which they call the “Semi-Structured Emotion Regulation Interview” (SERI). Intended for use by clinicians, the SERI contains a set of questions for which respondents provide their own ratings about themselves. The advantage of this interview-based approach is that people aren’t always able to label their own emotions accurately, They also may not experience each of the emotions covered in an all-purpose questionnaire. For example, if they’ve not felt extreme anger recently, then it wouldn’t be appropriate to have questions that focus on anger control. If anxiety is their target emotion, the interviewer can switch instead to this area of questioning. A questionnaire would not have this flexibility. Additionally, the semi-structured nature of the interview measure means that reasonably standard questions are asked of different people, an important criterion for a psychologically useful measure. Interviewers are trained to employ follow-up questions that use approximately the same wording for each individual, rather than just playing it by ear.

For the SERI, then, once participants identify the target emotion, the interviewer proceeds to ask them about these 9 possible emotional-regulation strategies. See which ones you tend to use:

  • Social support seeking: Turning to others for reassurance and ideas.

  • Self-medication: Using substances or alcohol to assuage one’s emotions.

  • Deliberate self-harm: Inducing harm onto oneself.

  • Acceptance: Taking a situation in stride.

  • Positive reappraisal: Looking at the bright side of a troubling situation.

  • Expressive suppression: Trying to contain one’s emotions.

  • Rumination: Going over and over in one’s mind the situation that provoked the emotion.

  • Behavioral avoidance: Staying away from the emotion-laden situation.

  • Cognitive avoidance: Staying away from thoughts about the emotion-laden situation.

For each strategy regarding one of your target emotions, indicate whether you’ve used it while experiencing the emotion, how often, and whether the strategy seemed to work for that situation. 

A key feature of interest in these emotion-regulation strategies is whether they actually work. By definition, some strategies are less effective than others at reducing the emotion you’re trying to control. Rumination will only make anger, sadness, and anxiety increase. Self-medication and self-harm are clearly damaging to the your mental and physical well-being. Avoidance isn’t very effective when there’s a problem you need to deal with, rather than shove under the surface.

No emotion-regulation strategy is very effective, by definition, if it doesn’t reduce the strength of the emotion you’re experiencing and help you feel better. But despite the inherent disadvantages to some of these strategies, the individuals in the Lee et al. study reported using them anyhow. In part, this might be because people don’t realize that the strategies themselves are problematic (such as self-medication), or they just aren’t able to identify or practice more effective approaches. People responding to these questions may not have anyone they can share their problems with, or may not know how to engage in the process of reappraisal. It may seem easier just to avoid things — either behaviorally or cognitively — than to confront a potentially anxiety or anger-provoking situation.

The Auburn University-led team made several interesting observations in testing the ability of the SERI to correspond to other previously-established measures of emotion control. One was that respondents weren’t always able to recognize when they actually had experienced a negative emotion. After indicating that they probably were using one of the avoidance strategies at the beginning of the interview, as the examiner continued to query, these individuals gained some insight into their own emotional experiences. Second, respondents weren’t always able to distinguish among related emotion-regulation strategies, requiring that the interviewers provide greater elaboration.

Because it provides a more “nuanced” assessment of emotion regulation than self-reporting, the authors maintain that the SERI is a better way to get at the strategies people actually use when they try to deal with painful emotions than the standard self-report. This suggests that when we read studies based on self-report, we take them with a fairly large grain of salt. Being able to acknowledge your emotions and then detect the way you handle them is a big step toward regulating them. If you know enough to answer a self-report scale, then you probably have enough insight to go about managing the way you handle these painful feelings.

To sum up, the Lee et al. study suggests that you can benefit from taking stock for yourself of which of the 9 strategies you use for your problematic emotions. The rule of thumb in the coping literature is that there’s no one “best” way to cope with stress. However, when it comes to emotion regulation, your strategy needs to work by at least allowing you to get your emotions under control.

Your emotional fulfillment depends on the positive generally outweighing the negative in the grand scheme of your daily life. Finding the strategies that work for you from those listed in the SERI can help you move toward that more positive and fulfilling route of self-expression.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Lee, D. J., Weathers, F. W., Sloan, D. M., Davis, M. T., & Domino, J. L. (2017). Development and initial psychometric evaluation of the Semi-Structured Emotion Regulation Interview. Journal of Personality Assessment, 99(1), 56-66. doi:10.1080/00223891.2016.1215992