People choose to respond differently depending on how intense an emotion is. A big part of coping with life is having a flexible reaction to the ups and downs. When confronted with high-intensity negative emotions, they tend to choose to turn their attention away, but with something lower-intensity, they tend to think it over and neutralize the feeling that way.

This is the finding of a study which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Two main ways

The study author Gal Sheppes of Stanford University and colleagues studied two main ways that people modulate their emotions; by distracting themselves or by reappraising the situation.

For example, if you're in the waiting room at the dentist, you might distract yourself from the upcoming unpleasantness by reading about celebrity breakups — “Maybe that's why the magazines are there in the first place,” Sheppes says — or you might talk yourself through it: “I say, ok, I have to undergo this root canal, but it will make my health better, and it will pass, and I've done worse things, and I can remind myself that I'm ok.” In one experiment, participants chose how to regulate negative emotions induced by pictures that produce a low-intensity emotion and some that produce high-intensity emotion according to an Association for Psychological Science press release.

Electric shocks

In another experiment, participants chose how to regulate their anxiety while anticipating unpredictable electric shocks, but they were told before each shock whether it would be of low intensity or more painful shock. Before the experiments, the participants were trained on the two strategies, distraction and reappraisal, and during the experiments, they talked about which strategy they were using at which time.

In both experiments, when the negative emotion was low-intensity, participants preferred to reappraise, telling themselves why it was'nt so bad. But when high-intensity emotions arose, they preferred to distract themselves.

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