“Well Dale, we, the universe, hate to break it to you, but your desk is on fire, your copy of Thor 337 was lost in the mail, you’ve been assigned to teach Summer School, you have five articles due yesterday, and your cat ran away to be with a family she likes better than you.”

We have all had days like this. Life is an unavoidably stress-wrought venture, but some of us seem to deal with it rather better than others. Some will crumple in the face of a treacherous cat, and others will shrug it off with relative equanimity. The interesting question is, why? Is it a genetic ability, a cultural side-effect, or the result of a better approach to stress that is accessible to us all?

Though we’ve been dealing with stress as a species from day one, the science of its regulation is relatively new, but as both the speed and demands of society increase under the inexorable press of a globally organized urban planet, few developing sciences will be as critical to our sustained success and mental health.

And when it comes to emotion regulation, you can’t go far without running into the work of Dr. Iris Mauss, currently at UC Berkeley’s Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab. Together with her students, she researches how humans interface with and direct their emotional lives, and how cultures can invisibly curtail our range of emotional coping mechanisms. For those working in high burnout, high stress professions (like emergency ward nurses or police officers, and entirely unlike scientific history cartoonists), or even those facing the day to day grind of poverty or family care, it is research that could prove crucial in allowing them to function in spite of potentially crippling emotional demands.

iris mauss comic

Mauss was born in a small town in Western Germany, and grew up a literature junkie of the first order, devouring the psychologically complex novels of the French and German traditions. They inspired her with a love of psychology and how it asks big questions about human nature that are kept firmly grounded in the methodology of scientific investigation. She chose psychology as her university specialization but was ready to fall back to the study of literature if she couldn’t get accepted to one of the coveted psychology positions of her day.

It is our good fortune that she was accepted, and after some initial work investigating how environmental stress like noise affects health, she came to San Francisco to intern at a half-way house that gave psychiatric support to patients facing a return to the Real World after time as an inpatient. But clinic work requires a very particular skill set and personality type, and Mauss realized that her strengths and nature made research, not clinical work, the best choice for her.

When it came time to do her doctoral work, she came back to the Bay to study with James Gross of Stanford University. “I was lucky to have a graduate advisor who not only mentored me in the science but also the intangibles that make or break a researcher.” Properly ensconced in the Bay Area, Mauss began her research into some of the big questions about humans and their mechanisms of emotion regulation, or the “altering of one’s emotions according to one’s goals.”

“One of the things we have found is that emotion regulation seems to play a crucial role in determining people’s well-being and health. In other words, people who are able to use emotion regulation well tend to be happier and healthier than people who don’t.”

Interestingly, two seemingly contradictory strategies for emotion regulation appear to result in significantly higher resilience in the face of stressful events: Reappraisal and Acceptance. Reappraisal involves a reframing of the emotions surrounding an event. This is a conscious decision to choose “positive” interpretations of events over negative ones, and those who mindfully employ it tend to rate their lives as happier, and their stresses less monumental, than those who don’t.

The second strategy, Acceptance, is at first glance entirely antithetical to Reappraisal. Acceptance involves, as the name implies, accepting negative emotions in the short term, letting them wash over you – “I liked that cat, and am sad I won’t get to scratch his chin anymore, and all in all it sucks.” While prolonged negative emotions can lead to diminished health, an immediate and temporary acceptance of them can, it is theorized, mobilize “meta-emotional” structures that diffuse the impact of the negative emotions and work to a person’s long term good and psychological stability.

“One of the things we have found is that emotion regulation seems to play a crucial role in determining people’s well-being and health.”

“We’ve found that accepting one’s negative emotions is, somewhat paradoxically, associated with less negative emotions in response to daily stressors. In other words, the more you accept your negative emotions, the less negative emotions you tend to experience. Over time, reduced levels of negative emotions appear to add up to better well-being, almost like a healthy diet leads to better health over time. To people from a background in mindfulness this will not be surprising, but to many people used to thinking of negative emotions as ‘the enemy’ and who have been socialized to aggressively pursue happiness, this may be a new consideration.”

Reappraisal seeks to recast emotions tactically, and Acceptance to accept them as they are. And both, it turns out, are right. By employing acceptance and then reappraisal, people can gain the benefits of both and significantly boost their resilience to stressors. The key lies in a re-evaluation of what “negative emotions” are and mean. As the inheritors of a work-mad Victorico-Protestant ethic on one hand and the consumers of an advertising culture that blares constant happiness as both norm and ideal on the other, we have been taught from all directions that negative emotion is a thing to be denied and sublimated at every turn. To let it have its say for even a moment is considered a personal failure and social embarrassment. But there is harm in that, Mauss writes, not just in the manic pleasure-sating it idealizes, but in how it lessens our ability to cope effectively with stress.

Culture, she maintains, plays a significant role in how we allow ourselves to deal with the slings and arrows of daily existence. “Emotion regulation doesn’t happen ‘out of the blue’ or for no reason. The beliefs that people have about their emotions – how they should feel, what they should do about it, and what they can do about it – underlie when and how they will use emotion regulation. These beliefs are shaped by what we learn in childhood and through our culture. If we want to understand emotion regulation, we need to understand what beliefs people hold about their emotions.”

For that army of people who experience unavoidable stress on a regular basis,  learning about the options they have to regulate their emotions may mean the difference between stability and breakdown. If we could teach the habit of emotional self-analysis and the psychology of resilience to doctors working with terminal patients, prison guards, social workers, and so many more besides, not only will it help them, but as a result our public spaces and services will be that much less grim, and the small tragedies of normal people broken by the demands placed on them by profession or circumstance that much less common.

Just as the ideas of Dr. Tania Singer about the light mirror neurons shed on empathy and compassion have in them the seed of a brand new, neurologically informed approach to a myriad of social services and professional structures, so does Mauss’s work in emotion regulation have the potential to give us moderns a shield against the persistent thrum of our own manifold stressors. She and her colleagues have gifted us with a bit more insight into our best tricks and worst habits as emotional actors, interpreters, and manipulators.

And if the last six months are any indication, we shall need it.

FURTHER READING: Dr. Mauss has a number of books she recommends for those wanting to start off in the psychology of emotions, and here they are!

Darrin McMahon, Happiness
Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress
Hazel Markus and Alana Conner, Clash!
Carol Dweck, Mindset
Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good
Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought

In addition, if you want to read her own research, her are some accessible articles she has written detailing it!

Change your feelings or leave them be
Emotion, experience and well-being
Acceptance and emotional health
Culture and emotion regulation
Resilience in the face of stress: emotion regulation as a protective factor

**And for more awesome Women in Science comics check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Year One and Year Two.