Struggle with emotional intensity? Try the “situation selection” strategy

GettyImages-511062060.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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 ….

Situation selection is a particularly effective emotion regulation strategy for people who need help regulating their emotions

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “Struggle with emotional intensity? Try the “situation selection” strategy”

  1. This reminds me of a Tommy Cooper joke. Patient: ” Doctor, doctor it hurts when I do this.
    Doctor: ” Well don’t do it then”

    To some extent don’t we all exercise avoidance when unsure of how much control we will have not only of our own emotional responses, but of how much confidence we have in walking away unscathed or ‘doing it differently’ next time?

    Despite all the things I have learned in my life about psychology and all my efforts to stop being nervous when talking in public, I still suffer aged 52 from bouts of selective mutism. I can hear what I want to say in my head, but it just doesn’t come out. I can write it down, but not say the words out loud. I have to the best of my memory been this way since around 4 years of age. I now know why I am like this, but it doesn’t make any difference to my everyday functioning. I am fine in non- confrontational situations, on a one to one and small group situation, but put me in the spotlight and it all falls apart, time and time and time again.

    So I write as I used to write ‘sorry letters’ to my Mum when a little girl, because I couldn’t say the words. As an adult, trying to function in the Psychological world has been tough. Everyone expects you find presentations easy. You are supposed to know the answer to your own problems and to be able to cure your own illnesses and difficulties as well as everyone else’s.

    Two things help f an uncomfortable situation cannot be avoided:

    1. Pretending to be someone else – acting out a role i.e. not being ‘me’. In all my adult work roles , wearing a uniform that gives you status has helped considerably.
    2. Knowing inside out, what you are talking about and anticipating what questions or situations might arise and being prepared for all eventualities.

    As I face a life on my own again after my husband dies, I find myself being torn between re-entering the world of work and academia, reinstating connections to others and wanting to become a recluse and sever as many connections as possible to avoid getting hurt – withdrawal Vs engagement.

    I found this research very interesting for obvious reasons, but remain sceptical about my ability to change a lifetime of low confidence and avoidance behaviours so ingrained they have become habitual.

  2. “withdrawal Vs engagement.” – I hear this a lot these days, it seems to come to us all with a certain age: we know we need others, health depends on the social web etc etc etc, but the “others” become more difficult to deal with. The “lifetime of low confidence” sounds familar, too – perhaps like so many of us, you went through an education where you were impressed with the idea that “anything good about you came from god, but anything bad was your own fault”? – I’d say there is an upside to this sort of conditioning, whether religious or otherwise, it makes us more realistic about how society works and more able to cope without having to bolster a protagonistic image to ourselves the whole time. Thank you for your insights, and I wish you all the very best for the future as you manage its changes.

    1. Thankyou Rita for your sensitive reply. ‘God’ did come into it – a lot from earliest memories – born a sinful ‘bastard’ I was! A theme which repeated itself throughout my teens and early 20’s and recurred twice more in my 30’s and 40’s at times of ‘crisis’ and which I have now overcome completely. For me, adopting atheism was the most liberating decision I have ever made.

      But, that said, we now realise that many biopsychosocial interactions and timings are involved in development of a ‘personality characteristic’, or behavioural trait like ‘lacking confidence’ in certain situations. There is for me at least, a clear situational and hormonal ‘time of the month’ element to whether low confidence /social anxiety is expressed or not. I feel it is too easy to blame one factor more than another. I have always lacked confidence in some, not all areas of my life and I avoid those that make me uncomfortable to the extent that I even try not to think about those times when I have ‘failed’.

      Psychologists and psychiatric nurses aren’t allowed to ‘fail’ at life, like get divorced or fat or suffer mental illness. That is what I am working on at the moment- the subject of my dissertation in 2017, on why so many health care workers (NHS) are obese compared to ‘normal’ population distribution of obesity. They don’t seek help for themselves because of the public perception that they should be immune from making poor lifestyle choices.

      My specialisms in Psychology have been about behaviour change and organisational hypocrisy and the role of belief systems in making attributions and decisions. We ‘live and learn’ as the saying goes and I am enjoying learning to ‘accept myself as I am and not as others think I should be… in any realm…

      Kind regards


      1. Ample evidence exists of a malevolent, evil, negative energy that stalks and attacks its prey; those who closely study the worst cases of human interaction conclude that an inexplicable force drove them, far beyond what any logical rational conclusion would haved based upon circumstances. Catholic rituals have been shown to be the fastest path beyond the malevolent, evil, negative energy although not without dramatic short bursts of increased depression or anxiety. As a decisioned atheist you are free from mis-information or badly managed attempts to teach Catholicism to you previously; you are free to study independently the history and results. Sadly most adults are stuck on an undereducated person’s malignment of the educational group that the historically well known person of Jesus established to continue his teaching. Similar to AA, where one alcoholic helps another — those who attend at least weekly, if not daily, and support their group with voluntary donations of a size sufficient to make it a donation in earnest (rather than a disrespectful throw-away token), are able to meet others only to the extent with which they trust and become vulnerable. Meeting others and having a “we” centered mentality is the single biggest driver of health and happiness. Pride is, of course, the single most reliable determinant of lonliness, depression and anxiety– compounded beyond reasonable measure with nicotine and/or caffeine but getting most patients to detach from nicotine and caffeine is easier said than done. Any humble and honest study of the Seven Lively Virtues as the antidote to the Seven Deadly Sins, combined with an intentioned decision to live out the 10 Commandments, quickly allows the patient to self-determine that living a life of Virtue is necessary for long-term, self-sustaining mental health. Of course one cannot be a man or woman of Virtue if not well versed in it. Sort of like, how being an auto mechanic requires one to work on cars, or being a pianist requires one to play the piano, being a man or woman of Virtue requires one to actually do it.

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