Arts & Sciences

How do others help us regulate emotions?

Research from the lab of Renee J. Thompson in Arts & Sciences investigates the ways we reach out to others to help us regulate our emotions — and how they respond to our needs. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When COVID-19 hit, many people were suddenly cut off from their social support systems, the people with whom we often share our emotional lives. They who listen to our grievances, share in our happiness, or just sit there, being bored with us.

Is that a problem? How much do we depend on others to help us regulate our emotions? Although there is a rich history in examining how individuals regulate their own emotions, not much is known about the roles played by others.


A study from the lab of Renee J. Thompson, PhD, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has begun gathering information to better understand the role of others when it comes to regulating our emotions, a process called interpersonal emotion regulation.

Results were published earlier this year in the journal Affective Science.

Preliminary results suggest that interpersonal emotion regulation is ubiquitous and that, although the people we reach out to are often supportive, they might not always provide the exact kind of support we’re looking for.

For the study, a group of 50 women and 37 men were prompted five times a day for two weeks to answer survey questions about whether, with whom, and why they shared any negative emotional experiences. They also were asked how the other person responded.

“We really just wanted to understand the phenomenon, at a basic level, in participants’ natural settings,” said first author Daphne Liu, a PhD candidate in Thompson’s lab. “How often do people reach out? In what form? And when they do, how do others respond?”

Liu found that people share negative emotions quite often, on average about every other day. She speculated, however, that people share more than they reported in the study because participants only reported on interactions with a single person, and they only reported one interaction per survey prompt.

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