2 November 2022: Using Language to Measure and Modify Emotion Regulation and Mental Health: From the Lab to the E-Clinic

Eric Nook
Department of Psychology
Princeton University

Both theory and empirical evidence show that taking a distanced perspective on stressors helps us down-regulate our negative emotional reactions and respond more adaptively. But what if our words, our language, could be tools for increasing psychological distance, and consequently emotion regulation? This talk will present a series of studies on linguistic distancing (i.e., changing one’s words to increase psychological distance by reducing use of first-person singular pronouns like “I” and present tense-verbs) and its relationship with emotion regulation and mental health. Experimental studies (Ns = 107-207) showed that having participants write about aversive images without using the word “I” or present-tense verbs reduced their self-reported negative affect. Conversely, asking participants to engage in emotion regulation (by cognitively reinterpreting or reappraising) aversive images while writing their thoughts revealed spontaneous increases in linguistic distance that correlated with reap-praisal success. Finally, a large naturalistic study of psychotherapy transcripts (N = 6,229) showed that linguistic distancing increased over treatment and tracked within-person reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms. All studies included replications of key findings, strengthening conclusions. Together, this line of research shows that language is a powerful tool for measuring and manipulating both emotion regulation and mental health at large scales.