Study provides new insights into emotional regulation strategy use among socially anxious individuals

A recent study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion utilized smartphones to get a better understanding of how socially anxious college students regulate their emotions.

“This study is part of a larger effort to use smartphone technology to understand how individuals with varying levels of depression and anxiety regulate their emotions in daily life,” said study author Alexander Daros, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

“Instead of asking people to come to the lab and report on situations over the past 2 weeks, we’ve been more interested in assessing people’s emotion regulation strategies in real-time, as they encounter events during the day. This has only recently become possible through the use of experience sampling smartphone applications, which send notifications with surveys to people several times per day.”

“Past research has shown that people with social anxiety disorder tend to use less effective strategies to regulate their emotions, like avoidance and suppression, which tend to inhibit or avoid emotional experiences. This tends to have affective, cognitive, and interpersonal consequences and may maintain the symptoms of social anxiety,” Daros explained.

“We wanted to explore whether people with high trait social anxiety might use any or certain emotion regulation strategies differently compared to people with low trait social anxiety in different contexts (e.g., in a social situation or alone, when experiencing high or low social desire, and at high or low negative affect).”

The researchers assessed social anxiety symptoms in 115 undergraduate students and then used a smartphone app to examine how often the students used 8 different emotion regulation strategies over the course of 14 days. The app also measured negative affect (poor mood) and social desire (how much the participant wanted to be with others.)

The emotion regulation strategies included: trying to ignore feelings, trying to hide inner feelings, trying to distract oneself from feelings, thinking a lot about one’s feelings, coming up with a concrete plan for action, changing one’s perspective on something, trying to accept feelings, and seeking advice or comfort from others.

The researchers found that socially anxious participants were more likely than non-anxious participants to report using at least one of the emotion regulation strategies when in a negative mood.

“The main finding from the study is that people with higher levels of trait social anxiety tended to use an emotion regulation strategy more often than people with low trait social anxiety, at least when considering high negative affect observations,” Daros told PsyPost.

“We also found that the use of an emotion regulation strategy for high trait social anxiety individuals interacted with their in-the-moment social desire. So, if someone with high trait social anxiety had higher social desire, they were more likely to report using an emotion regulation strategy (and vice versa: someone with high trait social anxiety and low social desire were less likely to report using emotion regulation strategies).”

“We think this is because people with high trait social anxiety also want to engage socially at times and have to overcome their own tendencies to inhibit or avoid these situations — thus engaging in more emotion regulation strategies to do so,” Daros said.

“Although we expected people with high (vs. low) trait social anxiety to use more avoidance and suppression at high negative affect, we actually did not confirm this finding; however, when considering all observations regardless of negative affect, we did confirm this tendency. These results suggest that most of us are more likely to use suppression and avoidance when we are upset (regardless of our trait social anxiety levels).”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Our sample was a relatively homogeneous sample of undergraduate students and only 25% had trait social anxiety scores that could be considered clinical. Therefore, it would be useful to examine the generalizability of the findings in new samples and individuals with diagnosed social anxiety disorder,” Daros told PsyPost.

“Moreover, we defined social situations rather crudely in the study (e.g., with others or alone) and this does not reflect the complexity of actual social interactions (e.g., around others but not interacting, online interactions). This may have led to the non-significant findings seen for this variable.”

“We hope to assess social interactions better with additional specifiers in the future. In addition, we had a somewhat low response rate overall (e.g., ~40% of surveys were returned), but this may reflect the fact that we recruited real students who were going to class and engaging in activities, and therefore may have missed surveys because of these reasons.”

“This is the first of a series of studies using smartphone experience sampling, therefore we’re excited for what we will find next! We think that findings from this research show how the use of ER strategies can be context-dependent on many variables (e.g., trait social anxiety, social desire, negative affect),” Daros added.

“Thus, we are actively looking at how we can predict when and where people might use different strategies, depending on their clinical characteristics. Because effective and flexible ER is associated better mental health, we think this type of research will eventually help to understand and provide feedback to people about how the regulation strategies they use may be influencing how they feel, think, and act.”

The study, “Impact of social anxiety and social context on college students’ emotion regulation strategy use: An experience sampling study“, was authored by Alexander R. Daros, Katharine E. Daniel, M. Joseph Meyer, Philip I. Chow, Laura E. Barnes, and Bethany A. Teachman.