Contributed by Angelina Sung, MS
A little help from our loved ones: Everyday interpersonal emotion regulation in depression
Science Spotlight on 2023 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award Winner
Dr. Daphne Yunjing Liu
When I’m feeling down or unsure, I often seek out the support of my friends or my partner.
“Did I do the wrong thing?”
“Am I overthinking this?”
“What do you think I should do in this situation?”
I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to having these kinds of emotions and thoughts. Oftentimes, I lean on others to feel better about myself, or because I don’t want whatever negative situation I’m in to happen again. I’d like to think of myself as capable of doing these things, but I admit that I may struggle to engage in these goals, motives, and strategies in-the-moment.
For 2023 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Winner Dr. Daphne Yunjing Liu, these momentary emotion goals, as well as emotion regulation motives and strategies utilized in the context of other people were an especially interesting avenue of research to pursue, particularly among those with depression. This research falls within the study of interpersonal emotion regulation (IER) which is an area that likely piqued Dr. Liu’s interest due to her upbringing in China – a cultural environment that largely embodies collectivist values, giving her an intimate understanding of the importance of relationships and the ability to view human experiences through an interpersonal lens. Already building a program of research on emotion regulation in depression, she expressed the following about her dive into the IER literature:
“It made me think more about whether, for people with psychopathology characterized by emotion dysregulation such as depression, social relationships could serve as a particularly helpful resource where they receive help with emotion regulation and learn effective regulation skills.”
Dr. Liu pursued these ideas in her dissertation which aimed to understand how people with major depressive disorder (MDD) use social resources to regulate their emotions in daily life. She asked: How often do people with MDD engage in IER? With whom do they seek to engage in IER? How do others respond to these attempts – what are the possible IER strategies that others adopt? And how much do people with MDD benefit from these IER strategies?
To answer these questions, Dr. Liu conducted an experience sampling study. Together with other members of the Emotion and Mental Health Lab (PI: Dr. Renee Thompson) at Washington University in St. Louis, she recruited three groups of participants: 1) adults with current MDD, 2) adults with remitted MDD, and 3) controls (i.e., adults who have not experienced any psychiatric disorders). Five times a day for 14 days, participants described sharing their negative emotional experiences with others: whether they did it, with whom they did it, why they did it, how they perceived the other person’s response, and how much benefit they received from it.
These data enabled Dr. Liu to describe everyday IER processes in richer detail than previously possible. She found that participants engaged in IER approximately every other day. People tended to seek out close others, such as romantic partners or friends, rather than co-workers or acquaintances. In these interactions, participants in all three groups reported having emotion-oriented goals more often than problem-oriented goals. In other words, people sought out empathy or validation more often than advice or help. More often than not, their needs were met: On average, other people’s responses were experienced as warm and supportive, and participants reported feeling better about the original issue and closer to their confidant.
Looking for group differences in IER, Dr. Liu instead found many similarities among people with current MDD, remitted MDD, and controls. People with current MDD did not report extensive IER difficulties as expected, but instead generally engaged in IER and benefitted from supportive IER similar to controls – sometimes even more so. Depression, at least in this study, did not seem to diminish IER-seeking motivations or result in perceived social rejection following IER attempts.
One important implication of Dr. Liu’s research is that the difficulties with emotion regulation often found in depression may have more to do with intrapersonal than interpersonal dynamics. They are not apparent when we look at the real-life moments in which people use social others to cope with negative emotional experiences. Based on her findings, Dr. Liu also wondered about the risk of reliance on others for emotion regulation and the emotional cost for loved ones who routinely provide support – an additional line of inquiry in the study of IER in MDD that could be worth pursuing. Taken together, Dr. Liu’s dissertation provides valuable insight into IER for people with past or present depression, not only informing what IER looks like at these different stages, but also shining light on how therapists and clinicians may intervene by cultivating social resources when treating people for depression.
Liu, D. Y., Strube, M. J., & Thompson, R. J. (in press). Do emotion regulation difficulties in depression extend to social context? Everyday interpersonal emotion regulation in current and remitted major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.
Liu, D. Y., Strube, M. J., & Thompson, R. J. (2021). Interpersonal emotion regulation: An experience sampling study. Affective Science, 2, 273–288.
Zaki, J., & Williams, W. C. (2013). Interpersonal emotion regulation. Emotion, 13(5), 803–810.