Stressful life events (SLEs) such as losing one's job or the death of a loved one increase an individual's risk for debilitating psychological-health problems (increased mental-health problems such as depression, decreased well-being). However, some individuals exhibit impressive resilience, as evidenced by maintained or even increased psychological health in the face of SLEs. Understanding the factors that contribute to the vast individual variation in responses to SLEs across adulthood has clear implications for the prevention and treatment of mental-health problems as well as the promotion of well-being. A pivotal resilience factor in younger and middle-aged adults is emotion regulation, which refers to the processes people use to alter their emotions. However, older adults appear to exhibit declines in the ability to implement some of the most effective types of emotion regulation (e.g., detached reappraisal). Therefore, we must explore other types of emotion regulation to identify those most useful to individuals as they age. Theories suggest those types of emotion regulation are promising in this regard that either do not rely on resources that may decline with age (e.g., executive functions) or that rely on resources that improve with age (e.g., generating positive emotion, emotion understanding). Three types of emotion regulation fulfill these criteria: First, highly practiced and thus automatized emotion regulation (automatic emotion regulation);second, generating positive emotion (positive reappraisal);and, third, acknowledging negative emotional experiences without judgment (acceptance). These theoretical considerations together with preliminary evidence lead to the promising hypothesis that these three types of emotion regulation abilities (ERAs) may promote resilience and, more generally, enhance well-being in individuals as they age. Research is needed now to clarify whether these three ERAs indeed improve with age and whether and how they protect people in high-stress contexts across adulthood. We will use a multi-method approach to address three specific aims.
In Aim 1, we will assess changes in these three ERAs across adulthood.
In Aim 2, we will determine the three ERA's role in promoting psychological health across adulthood.
In Aim 3, we will identify mechanisms by which they translate into better psychological health. We will address these aims in a diverse community sample of individuals aged 21 to 80 who have recently experienced a SLE, as well as a matched, no-stress sample. Addressing these aims is innovative because it will contribute to our understanding of how ERAs change across adulthood, and whether and how three particularly promising types of ERA protect adults from adverse psychological-health effects of SLEs and promote well-being. This research will make a significant contribution to the development of scientific models of emotion regulation, stress, and healthy aging, as well as to effective interventions that promote resilience in adults.
The objective of this research program is to contribute to understanding the vast individual variation in health outcomes after stressful life events. It focuses on a psychological process that theoretical and empirical considerations suggest as a crucial resilience factor, namely individuals'ability to regulate (alter) their emotion. In the loger term, findings from this project will be critical for the development of effective early-identificaion, prevention, and intervention programs.