Whether you are frequently wearing Lulu Lemon gear or not, it is difficult to miss the assurgency of yoga as a popular fitness activity. Taking the emphasis away from measurement-based exercise, like marathon running or bench presses, yoga is first and foremost about flexibility. Breathe. Stretch. Relax. Repeat.
In a similar way, one branch of emotion research over the past decade has begun to show the benefits of emotional flexibility.
In the most general sense, flexibility requires change in response to an event. With objects, as with bodies, this is often reflected in bending or changing shape somehow in order to accommodate shifting conditions without losing integrity. The opposite, then, is rigidity, where the object or body resists and retains its pre-existing shape. At its core, the concept of flexibility/rigidity is all about adaptation to local conditions in the environment.
With emotional flexibility, the same distinctions apply.
From moment-to-moment, emotions ebb and flow in a constant stream from one state to the next. A simple ritual of reading the newspaper can create a sequence of anger at a politician, sadness about the passing of a favorite celebrity, and a chuckle from the cartoon on page 12. Interacting with other people also punctuates that ebb and flow through complaints, joking, or interest.
A group of researchers led by Peter Kuppens and Peter Koval have examined this ebb and flow as emotional inertia, or the tendency to remain in an emotional state, even when conditions are changing (rigidity). To measure inertia, they use a type of correlation called an autocorrelation, which refers to the degree of correlation between a first moment (let’s call it time 1) with the next moment (let’s call it time 2) and so on. Higher autocorrelations of emotional states means that a person’s emotions are similar across multiple instances and that they are not changing very much. This indicates greater rigidity. Imagine being stuck in an angry mood all day and not reacting positively when you see an old friend. This would be pretty rigid. Now you might think that the reverse could be a good thing—getting stuck in a positive mood in the face of negative events, but this can be rigid too. Imagine you stay positive in the face of a slew of negative events during a really bad day (e.g., you get passed up for a promotion, you learn a friend is sick, you get in a fender-bender on the way home). This might buffer you from the effects of the negative events, but staying positive might also mean that you’re not appropriately reacting to those events or doing anything to change them. It might be more adaptive to get sad or angry when you get passed over for a promotion because it will make you try harder in the future. Consistent with this logic, a series of studies demonstrated that higher inertia, of both positive and negative emotions, has been associated with rumination and low self-esteem, but especially depression and the onset of depression in adolescents. Getting stuck, even in positive states, is not desirable.
But individual’s emotions don’t rise and fall in a vacuum. Most of the time, one’s emotions are ebbing and flowing because of interacting with someone else, whose emotions are also ebbing and flowing. Now add a third person. How can we measure that complexity?
My research group examines emotional flexibility among two or three interacting people by first viewing them as complex dynamic systems. Without getting too technical, the idea is that two people – let’s call them a “dyad” (as opposed to a monad or triad) – form a system of mutual influence on each other. The emotional patterns or “dynamics” of the interaction reveal the nature of that system. At a relatively simple level, we can characterize these dyadic systems as more or less flexible by measuring (1) the range of emotional states experienced; (2) the number of changes in emotional states experienced across time; and (3) the tendency to have short vs. long durations in emotional states. The image below shows the difference between a flexible mother-child dyad discussing a conflict they have at home and a rigid dyad doing the same thing.
These state space grids depict all possible emotional states of the mother (horizontal axis) and child (vertical axis) along 5 categories of different types of emotional experiences (e.g., a Hi Pos experience might be feeling excited whereas a Lo Pos experience might be feeling calm). This is simplified for the sake of illustration but can be done with any type of emotional experiences. Each box or cell of the grid represents one state; for example, the bottom left cell is for those moments when both mother and child are in highly negative states (e.g., angry, anxious). The dots and blue lines trace the sequence of those states across the interaction, and the size of the dot indicates how long they were in that particular state. Thus, you can see that the flexible dyad on the left has a greater range of states, (more cells occupied), makes more transitions (more lines), and has shorter durations (smaller dots) than the dyad on the right. The pattern for the flexible dyad on the left is like a movie, with the parent and child sharing and exchanging emotional expressions in fluid motions. The pattern for the rigid dyad on the right is like a series of still photographs, with the parent and child posing for a while and then shifting poses only occasionally. Using this technique, my colleagues and I have been able to show how:
- Parent-child rigidity goes up when emotional conflict increases in adolescence
- Greater parent-child rigidity is associated with young children’s anxiety/depression and aggression problems
- Parents and children who have been successfully treated for the child’s aggression problems show greater flexibility following the intervention
- Dyadic flexibility is correlated and changes with brain activity indicating the use of self control
- Mother-daughter rigidity in early adolescence predicts both mothers’ and daughters’ anxiety and depression five years later
Although it is not immediately intuitive, these studies indicate that these effects occur above and beyond emotional intensity or the emotions being experienced – inertia and rigidity in both positive and negative states is problematic. The take home message is clear: experiencing and expressing emotions in a flexible way is generally indicative of healthy functioning in day-to-day life.
Colloquially, it is common to use flexibility and rigidity when describing others. We praise people for going with the flow, chilling out, or rolling with the punches, but then denigrate the stick in the mud or someone stuck in a rut. Perhaps what we are picking up on is a person’s ability to move in and out of emotional states with relative ease. In addition to making sure to do your sun salutations or enough reps, it is just as important to stretch your emotional muscles.
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