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Understanding How People Under Stress Regulate Emotion

Stress ignites an emotional firestorm that can lead to depression, overeating and high blood pressure, which in turn could psychologically and physically damage an otherwise healthy person.   

To determine whether people can regulate these emotions and stave off the effects of stress on their wellbeing, a Franklin & Marshall College professor and her student researchers are studying emotion-regulation ability among hundreds of volunteer subjects.  

"If you can regulate these emotions when you're stressed, you may be better off in terms of future outcomes," said Assistant Professor of Psychology Allison Troy, who has devoted her scholarship to the relationship between emotion regulation, psychological health, and resilience to stress. She began conducting the project last year. 

  • emotion regulation story
  • Since study volunteers are kept anonymous for privacy reasons, Franklin & Marshall College Hackman Scholars Markera Jones and Steele Schauer demonstrate how a volunteer is monitored to determine their emotion-regulation ability. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

As one of two Hackman Scholars working with Troy, senior Markera Jones, a double major in psychology and French, recruits and screens the volunteers, then prepares them for the lab study. She wires them with sensors to monitor their emotional and physical state while they perform specific tasks.

"We look at changes in skin conductivity -- whether the sweat glands are releasing more moisture -- and heart rate," Jones said. "The work is interesting and has helped me as I think about what area of study in psychology I want to pursue."

In the current research, which includes people who have recently experienced stressful events in their lives, volunteers are asked to either watch a sad film clip, which is intended to induce sadness, or to give a three-minute speech, intended to induce anxiety.   

Because people, in general, are anxious about giving speeches, the volunteers are told to make up a speech before a camera. They are told the camera is recording them and that a panel of judges will evaluate their speech, Troy said.

To gauge the volunteers' effectiveness at emotion regulation, Troy and Jones instruct them to think about the film or the speech in a positive way -- an emotion-regulation strategy called reappraisal -- or to accept the negative feeling they have about the film or the speech, which is called acceptance.  

"This task is not related to what is causing them stress," Troy said. "The task measures people's natural ability to change their emotions when they try to in the lab."

After finishing a task, the volunteers complete a questionnaire that Troy and Jones use, along with results from the physiological monitoring, to examine changes in people’s negative emotions.

"We end up with cognitive reappraisal scores and acceptance scores for each person in the sample, which tells us how successful each person was at regulating their emotions with those two emotion-regulation strategies," Troy said. "We suspect, though we have yet to determine it, that people who are high in the ability to use these two strategies are more likely to exhibit long-term resilience, even in the face of heightened stress."

  • emotion regulation story
  • Franklin & Marshall Hackman Scholar Steele Schauer is building a smart phone app that will allow Psychology Professor Allison Troy to gather data on a study volunteer's emotion-regulation ability while they go about their daily lives. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Troy predicts that these lab measures of emotion-regulation ability might one day help doctors and therapists predict long-term psychological health outcomes.

Senior Steele Schauer, a joint major in psychology and computer science, helps in the lab, too, but his primary task is building a smartphone app for a project related to Troy's emotion regulation study. 

"I'm looking for ways to get data from people without having to bring them into the lab," Troy said. "With the phone app, I could get their data in real time while they're out in the world."

Schauer is writing code for the app, which would collect data from volunteers who have experienced stressful events. Users would sign up online and list the dates and times of upcoming events they anticipate will cause them stress. The app would then notify them to complete a brief survey following the stress-inducing event.

Building the app, Schauer said, has helped him to put classroom theory into practice. He also believes it will make him more attractive to employers.

"My dream is to work for Google," he said. "Hopefully, this will give me a leg up on the competition."