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Emotion regulation strategies are used both consciously and unconsciously. Photo: Pexels/Stock
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Researchers find forcibly smiling doesn’t make you feel any better

It’s likely that at one point throughout our lives, we’ve all used emotion regulation strategies to change the way we felt before a big presentation or a stressful test. What’s interesting is that these strategies are used both consciously and unconsciously. 

Researchers Dr. Nancy Bahl and Dr. Allison Ouimet, from the University of Ottawa’s school of psychology, were interested in comparing two different regulation strategies against one another. This led to their study largely written by Bahl and supervised by Ouimet titled, “Smiling won’t necessarily make you feel better: Response-focused emotion regulation strategies have little impact on cognitive, behavioural, physiological, and subjective outcomes.”

What are emotion regulation strategies? 

According to Ouimet, emotion regulation refers to any process that we use as humans to try and change our emotional experience. What that equates to, is the ability to change which emotions we feel, how intense we feel them and for how long. 

One strategy could be to upregulate, this is common with emotions of joy or happiness where we often try to maintain those levels of joy as long as possible. In contrast, we can also downregulate negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, or shame. Both of these behaviours are examples of emotion regulation strategies. 

Within this study, researchers looked at what are called expressive suppression strategies, which is when we try to change the emotion while it’s already underway, rather than beforehand. The key is to make sure we’re not showing our emotion on our face by keeping a poker face (inexpressive suppression).

They also looked at another version of this called expressive dissonance which doesn’t hold the poker face (straight face) but instead depends on a really positive outward emotion, achieved by smiling. The main idea is to fake it till you make it even though what’s being expressed on your face isn’t reflecting what’s being felt inside.

What does previous research have to say about expressive suppression?

Ouimet explained that past literature suggested that those who practiced expressive suppression strategies (the poker face) actually felt worse, as opposed to better. Psychophysiological measurements showed they were feeling more anxious. 

“On the other hand, expressive dissonance has previously been used in certain types of dialectical behaviour therapy, where people are taught to put a little half-smile on when they’re not feeling great. That’s based on research that shows that when you get people to smile without knowing it they tend to rate things as funnier or report higher moods,” added Ouimet. 

This suggests that when we smile a little bit It can offer feedback to our brain that tells us we’re in a good mood. 

How was this study conducted?

Since the literature was suggesting the poker face strategy and the smiling strategy should do opposite things. It made sense for the researchers to compare the two. 

To begin, “we recruited a relatively diverse sample of young women, so 144 young women, and asked them to come into the lab. We used electrodermal activity to measure their baseline sympathetic nervous system activity. And then we randomly assign them to one of these three conditions,” said Ouimet. 

Then researchers gave specific instructions for each group. Meaning those assigned to expressive suppression were asked to maintain a poker face, and those in the expressive dissonance were asked to maintain a smile. The final control condition group members were asked to show their emotions how they usually would. 

She continued, “And then they looked at really negative pictures that are upsetting to just about anybody. And when measured their sympathetic nervous system activity. And we asked them to report their mood before and just after.”

In addition to the assigned task, the women were tested on their memory for the videos, because there is some research suggesting that suppression actually interferes with memory. 

What were the results?

Most surprisingly researchers found, “no differences whatsoever between the conditions. All three conditions were the same on pretty much all of our measures,” said Ouimet. 

Their results go against a previous notion that states expressive suppression should be worse than the control.  However, researchers didn’t find that to be the case in their study. Additionally, they didn’t find that smiling had any benefit either even though therapy suggests people use this kind of strategy. 

To understand what happened Ouimet explained, “we asked participants at the end of the study what other strategies they were using to manage their emotions. And what we found was that the vast majority of participants across all of our conditions, reported using multiple other strategies like cognitive reappraisal.”

According to Ouimet cognitive reappraisal refers to specific behaviours that try to change our interpretation of an event. Meaning if we have a stressful presentation coming instead of interpreting it as a disaster. Instead, we might try to change that appraisal into an opportunity to improve our public speaking skills. 

She added, “so this tells us a couple of important things, one hiding your emotions or smiling when you’re feeling anxious or sad, might not be helpful or harmful. But perhaps more importantly, it might not be all that useful to keep doing research this way.” 

Ouimet stressed that comparing strategy A against strategy B may not be as effective anymore because people tend to use the strategies spontaneously. Moving forward, research should focus more on how people choose which strategies and in which types of situations. 

It’s important to note that Ouimet is, “not sure there’s such a thing as always adaptive and always maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. And I think that’s probably too simplistic or reductive, right. We need to be picking what works in the moment.”

Advice to those who use emotion regulation strategies

Ouimet’s first advice is to pay attention to what strategies you’re using. This is because a lot of them are learnt over time rather than acquired through true practice. As a result, these methods are triggered almost automatically. After recognizing the strategy ask yourself if that particular strategy gave you the outcome you were looking for.  From there, you can assess whether or not you want those outcomes to keep happening or not. 

Ouimet continues to do research on anxiety and emotion regulation within the cognition and anxiety disorders research lab