If you are emotionally sensitive, there are mental defences you can use to help, like reappraising threats as challenges or distracting yourself from the pain. But if you find these mental gymnastics difficult, an alternative approach is to be more strategic about the situations that you find yourself in and the company you keep. Rather than grimacing as you endure yet another storm of emotional angst, make a greater effort to plan ahead and seek out the sunlit places that promise more joy.
As the authors of a new paper in Cognition and Emotion put it: “Situation selection provides an alternative strategy for individuals that does not rely on in-the-moment cognitive resources, and allows reactive and/or less competent individuals to tune their environment in order to promote certain emotional outcomes.”
Thomas Webb at the University of Sheffield and his colleagues first surveyed 301 volunteers (average age 36; 62 per cent were female) using a newly developed 6-item measure of situation selection. For instance, participants rated how much they “select activities that help me to feel good” and “steer clear of people who put me in a bad mood”. The participants also completed other questionnaires that gauged their happiness and emotional sensitivity, among other things.
Although purely correlational, the findings supported the researchers’ predictions: overall, participants who scored higher on situation selection also tended to report lower levels of negative mood and depression. Moreover, specifically among emotionally sensitive participants who admitted that they found it difficult to regulate their emotions, situation selection was also associated with greater life satisfaction and happiness.
Situation selection sounds obvious but how often can we say that we really think strategically in this way? A lot of the time our plans are based more on habit or passive acceptance of other people’s suggestions.
To provide a preliminary test of whether encouraging greater situation selection might be a useful strategy, especially for more emotionally vulnerable people, the researchers conducted a second study over a weekend with 125 more volunteers. On a Friday, the participants completed several psychological questionnaires, including tapping their emotional sensitivity. Half the participants were then given the following instruction, designed to foster greater situation selection, and asked to repeat it to themselves three times and fully commit to it:
“If I am deciding what to do this weekend, then I will select activities that will make me feel good and avoid doing things that will make me feel bad!”
Then, on the following Monday, all the participants provided a breakdown of their weekend activities and how they’d felt during each one. People generally engage in a fair amount of situation selection anyway, but the manipulation worked in that those who received the instruction subsequently scored higher on situation selection than the controls who did not receive the instruction. But the main take-away is that participants who received the situation selection instruction experienced more positive mood over the weekend, compared with the controls, and this was especially the case for the more emotionally sensitive participants.
The researchers concluded: “Notwithstanding the limitations of the studies … the present research underlines the potential for using situation selection to successfully navigate emotional life and suggests several directions for future studies on this relatively under researched emotion regulation strategy.”
Those future studies might include looking at whether the effectiveness of the situation selection approach is moderated by how good people are at judging how they will feel in different situations, which is what psychologists call “affective forecasting” – something we’re typically not very good at. For instance, many of us underestimate how good we’ll feel after doing some exercise.
More awkward issues will also need to be dealt with, such as how to balance the aim of reducing people’s emotional discomfort in the moment against their longer-term goals, which might necessitate navigating emotionally challenging situations. Indeed, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy involves addressing safety behaviours (think of the socially anxious person who avoids public speaking) that a person uses to reduce their emotional discomfort, but which in the long-term can exacerbate their emotional vulnerabilities or hinder their ambitions.
Other sceptical readers may agree that situation selection sounds like an appealing approach, but wonder what to do about life getting in the way – first they’ve got that meeting with their grumpy boss then a visit with their ill parent then they must pick the kids up from school then make dinner, then ….