To figure out how certain psychological elements might shield us from the destructive wrath of stress, researchers at the Yale Stress Center had 444 participants provide blood samples to estimate their epigenetic (or biological) age based on chemical changes, like DNA methylation. “As we get older, these changes happen in certain patterns that predict our likelihood of getting sick and of dying,” says lead author on the study Zachary Harvanek, MD, PhD, a resident at Yale’s Department of Psychiatry.
"We found that those who had a higher overall level of stress also had a higher epigenetic age." —Zachary Harvanek, MD, PhD
With this age intel handy, the researchers then turned to questionnaires that the participants answered about the level of stress they’ve experienced throughout their lives, as well as their ability to exert emotion regulation and self-control. “The survey on stress included about 140 questions to assess everything from everyday stressors to traumatic events like losing a loved one,” says Dr. Harvanek. “We found that those who had a higher overall level of stress also had a higher epigenetic age.” In other words? The stress was cutting their lifespans short, regardless of other health-affecting factors like smoking, body mass index, race, and income.
But, crucially, that negative effect of stress did not show up in the participants who ranked higher on emotion regulation based on their survey answers. “These questions were designed to get at how people recognize emotions in themselves and what sorts of things they typically do when they get upset,” says Dr. Harvanek. “For example, do they start thinking things are hopeless, or are they able to move on with their day?” For the folks in the second camp, this regulating behavior actually made them more resilient to stress, and, in turn, more likely to live a long, healthy life—no matter how much stress they were facing.
Why emotion regulation can protect you from the negative impact of stress
Because stress can cut our lifespans short through a variety of different mechanisms, there are also a few different ways that emotion regulation might help slow or reverse that effect. "What we know for sure is that emotion regulation fundamentally changes how our brains and bodies react to stress," says Dr. Harvanek.
One theory suggests that regulating emotions can minimize the cortisol spike triggered by acute stress—which would, over time, save you from the cascade of physical consequences that can follow chronically high cortisol levels (like an overworked immune system or unbalanced microbiome). Another hypothesis posits that emotion regulation helps keep your blood pressure from rising in the way it typically might as a response to stress, adds Dr. Harvanek.
While researchers are still figuring out the “how,” it’s clear that emotion regulation can help mitigate the negative impact stress has on aging—and, as a result, it has the power to ostensibly extend your lifespan.
What constitutes strong emotional regulation skills, according to psychologists
In essence, emotional regulation is about being in control of your emotions, rather than being reactively controlled by them. “It involves increasing one’s emotional awareness in order to make effective use of emotional responses,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “In my work with emotions, I have found that no emotion is necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but rather, it’s how we put our emotions into action that makes them healthy or unhealthy,” she says.
"It's how we put our emotions into action that makes them healthy or unhealthy." —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD
To wit, it’s the response you have to feeling different emotions that can tell you something about whether you’re a good regulator or…not so much. “You have good emotion regulation skills if you can allow yourself to feel strong emotions and still make productive decisions,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, LCP, author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder. And it’s worth reiterating the part about actually feeling the feelings—since over-regulating or shoving an emotion down is, crucially, just as ineffective a tactic as a blow-up response.
Instead, a regulated response to a negative emotion would look like either taking action to self-soothe or knowing when and whom to call when you recognize that you can’t soothe yourself, says Dr. Daramus.
For example, take the experience of a breakup. “Let’s say your anger and grief feel overwhelming, and you have an urge to cope in a way that might make things worse later,” says Dr. Daramus. “If you’re practicing emotion regulation, you might instead call a close friend who lets you vent without judging. Once you feel a bit better, you might find an activity that’ll keep you distracted. Perhaps, you take time off, treat yourself to something you love, and avoid talking to your ex until you can speak in a way that you’ll appreciate later,” she says.
How to boost your emotion regulation skills and increase your psychological resilience
According to Dr. Daramus, anyone can strengthen this psychological muscle. And given that it can act as a strong buffer against the negative effects of stress—some of which is practically inevitable, even for those who actively manage stress—it’s a helpful tool to add to your longevity-boosting toolkit.
To start, practice categorizing any emotions that bubble up into one of the five core buckets, says Dr. Manly: fear, sadness, anger, disgust, and joy. “Acknowledging the different feelings and differentiating between them is your first goal,” she says. “This requires a person to slow down in order to notice an emotion and name it, rather than simply ignoring it or reacting strongly to it.”
From that point, you have a few different options for managing the emotion: Dr. Manly suggests finding a healthy outlet, perhaps exercise, journaling, or meditation. Or, you could practice co-regulating with a friend, says Dr. Daramus: “Speaking to someone else about how you’re feeling can be an effective strategy for calming down and making decisions.” In certain cases, that might be best done with a mental-health professional, according to Dr. Harvanek, who also recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for increasing overall emotional wherewithal.
Whichever route you go, it’s important to remember that strengthening this element of mental fitness and resilience takes time, care, and attention. And while you’re on that journey, you won’t necessarily make linear progress. Feelings are fickle, and Dr. Daramus says part of regulating them is also learning to forgive yourself whenever an emotion does get the best of you.
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