In today’s fast-paced society, coping under pressure seems more vital than ever and is often a necessary skill across many professional domains. But how can individuals learn to cope in high pressure situations in order to maximise their potential within the important aspects of their lives? Interest in emotional control and regulation has burgeoned in recent years due to emotion having the capacity to facilitate or inhibit effective functioning. Emotion regulation is defined as the automatic or purposeful use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify or display emotions in order to achieve one’s goals, and is proposed to occur when a discrepancy is present between current and desired emotions (Gross and Thompson, 2007). Therefore, emotion regulation is relevant to skills such as, communicating effectively with peers, successful cognitive performance, the pursuit of long-term goals, and managing stressful experiences (Gross and Thompson, 2007). These skills are particularly relevant within professional situations, and with the implementation of emotional control, high pressure situations can be negotiated effectively.
The importance of emotional control within high pressure situations is not to be underestimated. In fact, many situations in life can be defined by how an individual has controlled their emotions under pressure. As an example, athletes suggest that controlling emotions is a key aspect of achieving sporting success (Terry and Lane, 2011). Furthermore, it is thought that intensity of emotions and the effectiveness of emotion regulation strategies can influence both the performance and well-being of the athlete (Castanier, Coombes, Eccles, Ward, Woodman, Janelle and Le Scanff, 2011). In addition, these aspects of emotion may also have implications within various other areas such as, business, high level performance in the arts industry, and also high pressure situations within military operations and training. Furthermore, emotional control and regulation is a valuable skill that is beneficial to many individuals.
Emotion regulation is presented as a self-regulatory process within which individuals monitor their emotions at a conscious or unconscious level and develop strategies to maintain or change these emotions to an appropriate level (Tamir, 2011). There are two established motivations to regulate emotion – hedonic and instrumental (Tamir, 2009). Hedonic motivation relates to regulating emotions in order to feel better, for example, an individual who is stressed at work may take an early lunch break to relax. However, another individual may be aware that they work more effectively under pressure and therefore leave work to the last minute. In this case, the individual up-regulates their stress levels to improve their performance. This would be an example of instrumental motivation as the individual is using their emotions to achieve a desired goal.
In order to regulate and control emotion, Emotional Intelligence is perhaps a necessary factor. Emotional Intelligence can be defined as an ability to process emotional information in order to recognise one’s own feelings and the feelings of others, and further manage one’s own feelings within situations and relationships (Goleman, 2005). The three aspects of Emotional Intelligence have been defined as, self-awareness, self-regulation and self-motivation. Self-awareness has been proposed as the most crucial competency associated with Emotional Intelligence in the workplace (Grayson, 2013), with self-regulation encouraging individuals to gain more power over their thoughts, emotions and performance (Schunk and Zimmerman, 2003), and self-motivation facilitative of achieving one’s goals (Goleman, 1995). These three factors of Emotional Intelligence facilitate psychological wellbeing (Baumannn, Kaschel and Kuhl, 2005), employee socialisation (Ashford and Black, 1996) and high job performance (Porath and Bateman, 2006). In addition, Emotional Intelligence is also closely linked with ballet dancing ability (Petrides, Niven, Miskounti, 2006) and academic performance (Sanchez-Ruiz, Mavrovelli and Poullis, 2013).
Due to the facets of Emotional Intelligence such as self-regulation, the concept suggests a link between Emotional Intelligence and emotional control and regulation. When presented with stressors, individuals with high Emotional Intelligence are able to implement adaptive coping mechanisms (Perez-Gonzalez and Furnham, 2007). Individuals with high Emotional Intelligence can also benefit from the management of positive and negative emotions by developing psychological skills (Zizzi, Deaner and Hirschhorn, 2003). Therefore, the coping mechanisms that can be implemented as a result of Emotional Intelligence could also be effectively introduced to increase and maintain emotional control. Furthermore, Emotional Intelligence could be considered a significant factor in increasing and maintaining emotional control.
Emotional control and regulation strategies have been divided into two groups; antecedent-focused and response-focused. Antecedent-focused strategies involve preventing an emotional response, whereas response-focused strategies regulate emotion directly as they deal with appraisals that are causing the emotion to occur (Lane, Beedie, Jones, Uphill and Devonport, 2012). Gross and Thompson (2007) proposed a five-category model of antecedent- and response- focused emotion regulation strategies: situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change and response modulation. The first four strategies are antecedent-focused, and the latter strategy is response-focused. Gross and Thompson (2007) suggested that antecedent-focused strategies deal with appraisals that trigger emotions. As an example, an effective strategy would be to reappraise the interpretation of a situation by using a technique such as positive self-talk and imagery. This may increase the belief of performing successfully, and could therefore assist in effectively managing emotions. Psychological skills such as imagery and positive self-talk are suggested to be effective in various high pressure situations, including use as coping mechanisms within ballet to increase emotional control and reduce stress (Noh, Morris and Andersen, 2007).
In the five-category model, reappraisal is referred to as cognitive change which can increase and maintain emotional control through an individual changing the meaning of a situation or an event. This can be applied to considering a situation as a challenge as opposed to a threat (Jones, Meijen, McCarthy and Sheffield, 2009), or reappraising the extent of self-blame. Reappraisal could also be applied to physiological symptoms that can influence emotions and thus performance. Many individuals associate physiological symptoms such as butterflies, increased heartrate and sweating as a sign of nervousness. However, if an individual is able to reappraise these sensations as their body signalling readiness for performance, they are perhaps able to decrease their feelings of anxiety (Webb, Schweiger Gallo, Miles, Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2012). In spite of the benefit of reappraising interpretations of anxiety, it must be stressed that individuals should not be encouraged to up-regulate anxiety and reappraise it as facilitative of performance, as this may reinforce maladaptive thought patterns and damage psychological wellbeing (Kendler, Hettema, Butera, Gardner and Prescott, 2003). Furthermore, individuals should proceed with some caution when attempting to control their emotions.
In terms of the five-category model of antecedent- and response- focused emotion regulation, there are many strategies that can be applied to increase and maintain emotional control. Situation selection refers to an individual actively placing themselves in one situation as opposed to another. As an example, before an important performance, a dancer may choose to get ready in a different part of the dressing room than another dancer that will irritate them before the show. Similarly, situation modification refers to modifying external elements of the environment. By implementing these strategies, individuals can increase the likelihood of achieving a desired emotional state and avoiding an undesirable one by changing the situation.
When it is perhaps more challenging to change the situation, attention deployment can be implemented. This refers to an individual redirecting their attention to influence their emotional state. This technique can perhaps be seen within stressful military settings such as a warzone. Soldiers may use their free time to focus on a game of football or various humorous pastimes in order to avoid focusing on their environment and the negative emotional state involved. Current research supports the benefit of learning skills such as arousal control and attentional control in order to increase and maintain emotional control, and as a result reduce stress levels within military personnel (Hourani, Council, Hubal and Strange, 2011). This example perhaps further illustrates the necessity of developing techniques to control emotions, which despite being applicable across many domains, is perhaps more vital in some situations than others.
The final factor of the model is the response-focused strategy of response modulation. This refers to strategies which directly regulate the physiological and cognitive elements of emotion. Where cognitive change and reappraisal look to adapt the meaning behind physiological symptoms (such as increased heartrate), response modulation aims to change physiological and cognitive responses to situations. This is particularly relevant when aiming to change arousal level to achieve the zone of optimal functioning (Hanin, 1997, 2000). Optimal arousal is necessary in all manner of situations, from sports such as archery and stressful military situations such as diffusing a bomb which require low arousal, to events such as power-lifting which require high arousal.
Within response modulation lies several regulating strategies which relate to psychological skills (Thomas, Murphy and Hardy, 1999), exercise (Ekkekakis, 2009), progressive muscular relaxation (Maynard, Hemmings and Warwick-Evans, 1995) and mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn 1994). One of the more commonly adopted strategies is suppression, which involves avoiding any obvious expression of emotion. However, this is perhaps a less effective strategy of emotion regulation particularly under a high cognitive load in a high pressure situation. In this case, the suppressed thoughts may be exacerbated (Wegner, 1994) due to the effort of reducing thoughts relating to the particular emotion. However, suppression may be necessary in life-threatening situations where a particular emotion is not conducive to surviving. This may be particularly relevant within a military setting as research supports that the use of avoidance and suppression of emotions can act as an effective coping mechanism within severe situations (Bar-Haim, Holoshitz, Eldar, Frenekl, Muller, Charney, Pine, Fox and Wald, 2010). However, considerable research suggests that despite suppression being adaptive in the short-term, it can present further psychological issues in the long-term. Additionally, research suggests that individuals have different abilities in terms of regulating emotions and therefore, some may find suppression more effective than others.
As a result of the vast research supporting the five-category model and its effectiveness in managing emotions, it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that these five categories and the strategies within them are relevant factors in increasing and maintaining emotional control in high pressure situations.
An additional potential strategy of emotional regulation is mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to the awareness that arises through “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994:4). This practice inspires self-awareness which could be likened to Emotional Intelligence, and promotes a non-judgemental acceptance of experiences and emotions within the present moment. This can reduce issues such as rumination and anxiety (Hayes and Feldman, 2004; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Practising mindfulness also improves self-regulation which facilitates awareness of thoughts and feelings (Cardaciotto, Herbert, Forman, Moitra and Farrow, 2008) and enhances one’s ability to observe external factors and internal reactions in order to develop self-control and reflection before acting (Maloney, Lawlor, Schonert-Reichl and Whitehead, 2016). Therefore, in counteraction to suppression, mindfulness encourages the acceptance of both positive and negative emotions. Recent research suggests that mindfulness may be particularly beneficial within the military as it is an inherently stressful and anxiety-inducing profession (Stanley, Schaldach, Kiyonaga and Jha, 2011) and mindfulness decreases perceived stress and increases wellbeing (Carmody and Baer, 2008). Therefore, current research suggests that mindfulness is perhaps a significant factor in increasing and maintaining emotional control by assisting management of stress and thus, increasing effective functioning, reappraisal and emotional regulation (Feder, Nestler and Charney, 2009).
Similar to positive reappraisal, previous research also suggests that mindfulness facilitates adaptive stress appraisal (Weinstein, 2009). Mindful individuals are successfully able to observe stressful events more objectively and avoid attaching meaning to the event. This skill aids the prevention of negative thought patterns which may lead to an inaccurate and inhibitive appraisal of events and situations (Hulsheger and Schewe, 2012). Due to the many psychological and emotional benefits of mindfulness meditation, it could perhaps be considered as a more effective method of increasing and maintaining emotional regulation that improves wellbeing. However, it is perhaps also worth considering that the principles of mindfulness do not necessarily encourage emotional control, as much as fully experiencing and embracing emotion in order to enhance emotional regulation.
In light of the beneficial influence of mindfulness and its close links to emotion regulation strategies, researching focusing on increasing and maintaining emotional control would perhaps benefit from further research regarding mindfulness. The recent popularity of mindfulness in the western world, alongside its traditional practice within the east perhaps highlights the feasibility of the meditation practice. Therefore, further exploration into the use of mindfulness within emotional control strategies may enable more the effective increase and maintenance of emotional control.
In conclusion, it is vital for individuals to cope under various pressures within many aspects of their lives. Therefore, increasing and maintaining emotional control in high pressure situations is a valuable coping mechanism that should be explored and implemented to enable effective performance. Emotional control can relate to an increasing variation of professional domains as previously discussed, and is therefore an exciting area of research within performance psychology. Emotional Intelligence may be a particularly prevalent factor in increasing and maintaining emotional control in high pressure situations, due to the necessity of developing self-awareness of one’s own and others’ emotions before attempting emotional regulation. Thus, perhaps Emotional Intelligence should be explored further within performance psychology research in terms of becoming a foundation for emotional control strategies.
Current emotional control strategies, however, are extensive in their own right, with both antecedent-focused and response-focused strategies being researched and implemented effectively within many performance domains such as the military, sport, business and the arts. Finally, this review explored the meditation practice of mindfulness. When considering both mindfulness research and emotional control strategies, there are similarities and differences regarding how emotions are approached. Due to its success in both the east and the west, perhaps mindfulness could be further explored with regards to emotional control in order to incorporate effective elements of the practice into strategies to increase and maintain emotional control in high pressure situations. Furthermore, despite the extensive literature regarding emotional control strategies, there perhaps remains scope to further explore similar areas of research in order to increase the depth of knowledge and practical applications within performance psychology.
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About Erin Prior
I'm a postgraduate student studying Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc at Loughborough University. I also have an undergraduate degree in Psychology (BSc) from Coventry University. I have represented Great Britain in archery and continue to compete at national level. My specific interests include the promotion of women's sport and striving for equaliy in sport and media representation.