People who are consciously aware of their emotions deal with them more effectively. This idea is supported by a recent survey study by Claudia Subic-Wrana and co-workers (2014) of almost 2,000 participants (a representative sample of the German general population).
In the study, explicit emotional awareness (the ability to express one’s emotions verbally as feeling states) was linked to more adaptive coping strategies (=reappraisal) and better mental health, however, the effect sizes were only in the low to medium range. Larger effect sizes would be expected in a clinical population.
The authors emphasize that:
“… The use of adaptive emotion regulation strategies may be fostered by the ability to experience feelings consciously.” (p. 9).
Technically, the study used a correlational design. People’s emotional awareness was measured by The Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale, originally developed by Richard Lane and colleagues (1990). The scale is a performance task that discriminates between subconscious and conscious emotional awareness.
Moreover, self-report measures for emotion regulation strategies (reappraisal and suppression) and negative affect (anxiety and depression) were applied.
Why would emotional awareness be linked to better mental health? I can only think of one explanation: When dealing with our emotions, we can either try to ignore or suppress them, or we can try to accept or make room for them. Now, you might think: why should we accept our emotions when we can ignore them and thus get rid of them? And that is a good question.
When we ignore (supress) our emotions, we become less aware of them. As soon as we have an unpleasant experience, we try to get rid of it, and as a result, we begin to perceive the feeling as a threat that needs to be avoided instead of just a feeling. Ultimately, supression will decrease our tolerance for unpleasantness, our emotional awareness, and our ability to deal with emotions.
In contrast to supression, reappraisal is a process of recognizing and accepting our negative emotions. It involves a reinterpretation of the negative emotional stimulus, and because of our reinterpretation we can change our perception or experience to a better, less distressful experience.
On the basis of this study’s results, we are more likely to engange in reappraisal if we can express our emotions verbally as feeling states. According to the authors, being aware of our emotions may be:
“a pre-condition for thinking about the situation that caused the negative feelings and for taking new perspectives that may change one’s mood.” (p. 9).
So, I guess we should start paying more attention to our emotions instead of ignoring or supressing them. Let’s start right now… what do you feel?
Thanks for your interest.