ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (2): 192-209.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.00192

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The influence of emotion regulation flexibility on negative emotions: Evidence from experience sampling

WANG Xiaoqin1,2, TAN Yafei3, MENG Jie4, LIU Yuan1, WEI Dongtao1, YANG Wenjing1, QIU Jiang1()   

  1. 1Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education, Chongqing 400715, China
    2Department of Education, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua, 321004, China
    3School of Psychology, Central China Normal University, Wuhan 430079, China
    4Department of Education, Guangxi Normal University, Gunlin, 541004, China
  • Published:2023-02-25 Online:2022-11-10
  • Contact: QIU Jiang


In our complex social environments, life situations are ever-changing. When dealing with these changes, there is no one-size-fits-all response or regulatory strategy suitable for all situations. Emotion regulation flexibility (ERF)—a framework for understanding individual differences in adaptive responding to ever-changing life contexts—emphasizes that individuals can flexibly deploy and adjust emotion regulation strategies according to specific characteristics of stressful situations in daily life. To achieve regulatory efficacy, it is important that one can utilize a balanced profile of ER strategies and select strategies that fit well with particular stressful situations. Specifically, using multiple ER strategies in daily life, rather than relying on only single-strategies, would indicate higher ERF. Additionally, based on leading models of strategy-situation fit, certain ER strategies are more appropriate for high versus low intensity stressful events. For instance, distraction involves with shielding oneself from negative stimuli and replacing them with irrelevant things, which may have a greater regulatory effect in high-intensity negative situations. Conversely, strategies such as reappraisal, which involves the processing of negative situations through deep cognitive change, may be more effective in lower-intensity negative situations and as a cornerstone of longer-term ER. We used the experience-sampling method (ESM) to quantify individual’s ERF; more specifically we assess participants for 1) having more or less balanced ER strategy profiles and 2) showing greater strategy-situation fit, in regard to the use of distraction versus reappraisal in the regulation of high-intensity versus low-intensity negative life events. To test the adaptive value of ERF on negative emotions and mental health, we investigated the influence of ERF on depressive and anxiety symptoms in two samples. We hypothesized that individuals with a more balanced profile of ER strategy use and a great level of strategy-situation fit would have higher levels of mental health, indicated by low levels of anxiety and depressive feelings.

In sample 1, two hundred eight college students finished the ESM procedure (2859 beeps). Intensity of negative situations was measured by self-reported negative feelings for the time points where participants reported an adverse event. Simultaneously, we assessed participants’ use of two ER strategies (i.e., distraction and reappraisal). Considering the negative impact of COVID-19 on people’s daily life, we collected another sample (sample 2, 3462 beeps) with one hundred people who lived in Hubei Province, where Wuhan was in lockdown during the severe phase of COVID-19 (March 7-13, 2020). We measured intensity of negative situations (by averaging individuals’ negative feelings), as well as the use of two ER strategies at corresponding time points. After completing the ESM procedure, the participants were asked to fill out a series of emotional health questionnaires, including Beck Depression Inventory-II, Beck Anxiety Inventory and Spielberger State Anxiety Scale. Multilevel models were used to fit the covariation between the use of distraction versus reappraisal ER strategies and the intensity of negative events. Additionally, we used multiple level regression models to test whether high level of strategy-situation fit would result in lower negative feelings. To test whether a single-strategy preference would lead to higher levels of anxiety and depressive feelings compared to a multiple-strategy preference, latent profile analyses (LPA) was used.

Results from the LPA indicated that there were five emotion regulation profiles in sample 1 (AIC = 3597.30, BIC = 3751.48, Entropy = 0.84, BLRT_p = 0.009) and six profiles in sample2 (AIC = 1595.19, BIC = 1754.71, Entropy = 0.95, BLRT_p = 0.001). In sample 1, results from One-way ANOVA showed that there were significant difference between five profiles in both depression (F (4, 206) = 5.44, p < 0.001) and anxiety (F (4, 206) = 5.68, p < 0.001) (See Figure 1 a-b). In sample 2, results from One-way ANOVA also showed that there were significant difference between six profiles in both depression (F (5, 95) = 2.74, p = 0.024) and anxiety (F (5, 95) = 2.98, p = 0.015) (See Figure 1 c-d). Specifically, individuals with preferences for rumination and express suppression reported higher levels depression and anxiety than individuals with a multi-strategy preference in two independent samples. In the multilevel models, results of the two independent samples both suggested that there were significant association between strategy-situation fit and depression and anxiety (Depression: Sample 1 [B = −0.01, p = 0.047, f 2 =0.03]; Sample 2 [B = −0.01, p = 0.017, f 2 = 0.03], see Table 1; Anxiety: Sample 1 [B = −0.00, p = 0.591]; Sample 2 [B = −0.01, p < 0.001, f 2 = 0.05], see Table 3). Furthermore, simple slope tests showed that individuals who were more inclined to use a higher level of distraction in response to high-intensity negative situations (e.g., adverse events or during COVID-19) and of reappraisal during low-intensity situations (i.e., high level of ERF) reported lower levels of depression (Sample 1 [B = 0.14, p = 0.003]; Sample 2 [B = 0.13, p < 0.001], See Table 2, Figure 2 a-b and Figure 3 a-b) and anxiety (Sample 1 [B = 0.04, p = 0.356]; Sample 2 [B = 0.26, p < 0.001] See Table 4, Figure 2 c-d and Figure 3 c-d). On the converse, individuals who tended to use more distraction in low intensity situations and more reappraisal in high intensity situations, (i.e., those showing lower ERF) reported a higher level of negative feelings.

Together, our findings revealed a negative relationship between ERF and mental health problems in two samples, suggesting that having balanced ER profiles and flexibly deploying strategies in specific life contexts may have adaptive value in facilitating positive mental health. This work deepens our understanding of the interaction between ER strategies and situational demands, paving the way for future intervention research to help alleviate negative emotions associated with affective disorders or the experience of major traumatic events (such as epidemics, earthquakes, etc.).

Key words: emotion regulation flexibility, strategy-situation fit, emotion regulation profiles, negative emotions, experience sampling