The Emotions of Dyadic Relationships: An Interview with Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas

Zerwas and Wells

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas, who at the time of the interview were Ph.D. candidates in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology. The interview was conducted by Julia Sizek, Matrix Postdoctoral Fellow.

Jenna Wells is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. At the time of the interview, she was a Ph.D. candidate in the clinical science area at the University of California, Berkeley and a clinical psychology intern at the University of California, San Francisco, specializing in neuropsychological assessment of older adults. Her research examines interpersonal emotional phenomena in connection with aging and mental and physical health, with a focus on dementia caregiving relationships. She is interested in identifying factors that are associated with individual differences in caregivers’ health and well-being, and ultimately, hopes this work will inform the development of targeted, evidence-based interventions for caregivers of people with dementia.

Felicia Zerwas is currently a postdoctoral researcher working with a team at New York University on the community science initiative, MindHive. At the time of the interview, she was a Ph.D. candidate in the social-personality psychology area at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on understanding the role that emotions play in the formation and maintenance of close relationships. Since we rarely experience emotions in isolation, she examines how individuals experience and express their emotions in the presence of others, like a friend or romantic partner. Ultimately, she is interested in how those emotion related processes influence measures of relationship quality such as intimacy, perceived support, and conflict.

Listen to the interview below or on Apple Podcasts.


Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m your host, Julia Sizek, and we’re recording in the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio. Our guests today are Jenna Wells and Felicia Zerwas, who are both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Psychology at Berkeley.

Jenna is a clinical psychologist who studies emotion in close, older-adult relationships. Her research examines aspects of emotional functioning that are associated with health and well-being in later life. She’s particularly interested in identifying risk and resilience factors in individuals providing care for a loved one with dementia. Ultimately, she hopes that this work will lead to interventions that promote healthy aging in the face of adversity.

Felicia is a social personality psychologist whose work focuses on understanding the role that emotions play in the formation and maintenance of close relationships. She examines how individuals experience and express their emotions in the presence of others, like a friend or a romantic partner. Ultimately, she is interested in how those emotion-related processes influence measures of relationship quality, such as intimacy, perceived support, and conflict.

Welcome to the podcast, and thanks for coming today.

Jenna Wells: Thanks for inviting us.

Felicia Zerwas: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

Sizek: So both of you study the dyadic form — that is, relationships between two people. How does studying two people together differ from studying one person alone?

Wells: That’s a great question. So Felicia and I both study emotions. And emotions are inherently social. They often occur in social contexts and interaction. And so much of the work in the field of affective science, or emotion science, has really focused on studying emotions in individuals. And this is missing a big piece of the puzzle, where emotions often occur in social contexts.

So we can learn a lot about studying people in their close relationships, in dyads, in groups. And so that’s, I think, a really important area for the field to head.

Zerwas: Yeah, I agree completely with Jenna’s answer. And I also just think it’s worth noting that, like she said, emotions rarely happen without people around us. And so they are inherently social phenomena. And if we’re not capturing that social context, we’re losing a lot of the nuance that can take place.

Sizek: So as we think about this, there are different emotions and different ways that people transfer their emotions between each other. How does emotional transfer happen in these different settings that you study, like friendships or caregiving relationships or romantic partnerships?

Zerwas: So it’s interesting. There are many different ways that this can happen. And so I bring couples into the lab typically to have conversations with one another. And one common process that we see is mimicry. So if you’re interacting with somebody and you see that they’re expressing certain behaviors, you might start to mimic them, because that can actually make the process or the interaction go a bit smoother. And so that’s one process I’m familiar with. Jenna I don’t know if there are others that you—

Wells: Yeah, definitely. So building on this idea of mimicry, or sometimes people call it “emotion contagion” — this idea that like, “I catch your feelings.” I think there’s also deeper levels of that that include different forms of empathy. So there’s cognitive empathy, where I know what you’re feeling, I can understand and accurately label the emotions that you’re having.

And then there’s also an emotional empathy where I feel what you’re feeling. I feel compassion or sympathy or kind of offshoots of this. And so there’s different ways in which we share and experience and mimic other people’s emotions. And those are all important facets of how emotions occur in these social contexts.

Sizek: But it’s not always the case that people are always expressing their emotions to each other. And one of the things that you both have looked at a little bit is this question of suppression or emotion regulation. So what is emotion regulation? And how is it commonly understood?

Zerwas: Yeah, I’m happy to take a stab at that one. So emotion regulation is the way that we try to manage or change our emotions. And there are many ways that we can do this. Suppression is one that you just mentioned, which involves concealing the behavior associated with an emotion. So, for example, I might be feeling sadness. On the inside. I can label that I’m feeling it, but I might not be showing any tears or any facial expressions of sadness.

And there are many other types of emotion regulation like reappraisal, which involves trying to think about the emotional experience in a different way. So, for example, I might try to tell myself something that will make me feel better about the emotion. I’m experiencing. And then another common one that at least I’m familiar with is acceptance, which is just accepting the emotional experience and not trying to change it.

And that’s typically associated with good things, because it’s not always advantageous to try to change your emotions.

Wells: Yeah, the different types of strategies that Felicia mentioned are really big ones in the field of emotion regulation. You can think about the process of an emotion happening, being generated. And at different points in the process. You might intervene either consciously or unconsciously, to change either the way you experience your emotion or you express your emotion.

James Gross is process model is the standard in the field for understanding these different avenues for employing an emotion regulation strategy. And so like Felicia said, suppression is one that happens at the end of the emotion generative process where you, consciously or unconsciously choose to inhibit your emotional response. Either expressively, or you could even suppress thoughts or feelings or attempt to.

Sizek: And how do these different strategies differ across different people? So let’s say that you’re a person who has a lot of social power or social prestige. How might you regulate your emotions differently? Or how might gender differences change how people think about regulating their emotions?

Wells: Felicia, you’re the expert on social power.

Zerwas: Yeah. Yeah. So I do have some recent work looking at how self-reports of social power, which is different than a role that’s associated with power. So this is, my perceived social power does actually influence the way that we think about emotions. And which in turn relates to the strategies that we use. So in our paper, we actually found that people who perceive themselves as higher in social power believe that they should not have to control their emotions.

And they also believed, interestingly, that they can control their emotions. And that was associated with them using less suppression, more acceptance and more reappraisal as well.

Sizek: So what does this mean on a practical level? Like give us an example of what someone would do if they were in this high position of social power.

Zerwas: Yeah, so I think the way that we interpreted it is that if someone is higher in social power, at least they perceive that they are. It seems like they feel like they can use emotion regulation if they want to, but they don’t think that they have to or should. So it’s basically this idea that they feel like they can do what they want, which makes sense when you think about this playing out in our lives.

And especially when you consider the flip side an– or someone that’s lower in social power has to be a bit more careful about how they’re expressing their emotions or managing their emotions. And so that’s– yeah.

Wells: Yeah. Just to jump in, I think that Felicia is hitting on a really important point, which is our beliefs about our emotion, regulation, abilities or capacity really play a role in how we use or don’t use these different strategies. And so suppression is one strategy that has typically gotten a pretty bad rap in the literature. You know, people have often found associations between using expressive suppression.

So hiding or inhibiting your emotional expressions or emotional behavior that that’s typically associated with bad outcomes like more depression, and anxiety and things like that. And we recently did a study where we looked at people’s ability to use expressive suppression on command. So we told people, you’re going to see something we want you to hide how you’re feeling.

And so someone looking at you wouldn’t know what you’re feeling. And we found that those who were better at using suppression actually had better mental health. They had less anxiety. And so that goes against what we typically think about with suppression being a bad thing.

But I think it connects to what Felicia was saying, which is perhaps it’s those people who believe they can use suppression on command or they know they have this ability or talent to employ a specific emotion regulation strategy on command in the moment, that they are adapting better and potentially just faring better more broadly.

Zerwas: I completely agree with that point. And I find this point– this point to be really fascinating. Actually, I was talking to some colleagues about the fact that so many people still use suppression, even though we know in the literature it’s been categorized as this very broadly terrible emotion, regulation strategy. And so all of us were like, why? Why are people still using it so much?

And it’s because it is adaptive actually in certain contexts. But if we don’t take context into account, we lose that nuance. So I completely agree with Jenna that it’s– a big take away from the emotion regulation literature is when and how you use these strategies. Not, it’s all bad or it’s all good. It’s about can you use them in ways that help, you know, better outcomes in the situation.

Wells: Exactly, I mean, you can think of some examples, I’m sure, from your own life in which you want to hide how you’re feeling. Like if you’re at a funeral and something funny happens, you want to suppress that response, to laugh or smile in the moment, or if you’re in a social situation in which you’re really proud about something and everyone else lost.

And you need to hide how excited you are about whatever it is that happened to you. These are just a couple of examples of times in which it’s actually very adaptive and probably socially. The nuance of the situation, it’s just shows that you’re more skilled to use those suppression in those moments.

Zerwas: I see this with couples a lot, too. You can imagine having an argument with someone you’re close to. And I study mostly romantic relationships, so that’s where my mind goes to. There are certain moments where bringing up a critique, for example, is useful and constructive because for example, you might both have capacity to deal with it.

But if you’re trying to bring up the anger that you’re feeling when your partner’s having– they’re upset or sad, that might not go as well. So I do really think that there’s a time and place to express certain emotions, and it’s not always the best to just let it out.

Sizek: Yeah, so turning to this question of emotional regulation in relationships, how does that work? And what are some of the common strategies that you have seen in your research on emotion regulation in these– either caregiving relationships or romantic partnerships?

Wells: Yeah, so interpersonal emotion regulation is a whole offshoot field of this idea of emotion, regulation. And kind of getting back to the question you first asked us about studying people in dyads. I think studying interpersonal emotion regulation is so rich and important because we do lean on others to help us regulate our emotions.

Like venting to somebody is one such example. Even reappraisal, which Felicia mentioned earlier, is something that you can lean on others to help them change how you’re thinking about the emotions that you’re having and reframe things in a way that’s more adaptive or palatable to you.

So I haven’t studied this explicitly, but I think it’s fascinating, especially, when we think about– I study caregivers, so usually family members– often I’ve studied spouses who are caring for their loved one with dementia or another neurodegenerative disease. And there’s a lot of intrapersonal emotion regulation. The caregivers have to regulate themselves to keep them in a headspace where they’re able to provide care.

But I also think about this in the context of someone who you’re losing. You’re losing a loved one who may be used to be a source of interpersonal emotion, regulation for you, someone that you could bounce ideas off of. And so, I haven’t looked at specifically how this changes over time.

I think that’s fascinating. But I do have this idea or this hunch that losing a loved one for whom you used to really seek out as a source of to help you regulate your emotions can be a pretty devastating loss for caregivers.

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t have the take of the caregiver relationship, but I do have some work that looks at how we can help our partners regulate their emotions. And we study the same three strategies that I mentioned in the intrapersonal, which is within the self. We also study those interpersonal. So how can I use those to help my partner. So there’s interpersonal suppression, which as you can imagine, not great.

If you’re trying to basically make your partner keep their emotions to themselves. That’s just overall, not a great strategy. Interpersonal reappraisal like Jenna was hinting on, it’s actually really interesting. We see that it’s not that great, actually. But it depends. It depends, though. It’s very complex. Because what can happen is if you’re trying to reappraise something which I mentioned involves reframing it to reduce the emotional impact, people can actually see it as invalidating.

It’s like, well, you don’t know what I’m going through. Or you don’t know what I’m experiencing. And so I think it really depends on the type of relationship. I think when you’ve been with someone for a long time and they understand where you’re at and what you’re going through, reappraisal can be really effective. But if you’re in a new friendship and you try to start reappraising their emotions, they might be like, whoa, wait a minute.

So typically, acceptance is a great strategy. Like Jenna was saying, validation and just allowing someone to vent and just being with them with their emotions can be really helpful.

Sizek: So this also gets us to the question of having both parties not be on the same page. We talked a lot about how there might be some contagion of the emotions between different people. If someone’s feeling really happy or someone’s feeling really sad, that is something that gets transferred relatively easily. But rather what happens when we don’t have that on the same pageness. And how does how do you study this?

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t study the not on the same pageness as much. I will say just anecdotally, when I have participants come into the lab and discuss conflict, they generally aren’t on the same page if they’re not communicating well. And so I think one thing, again, this is anecdotal, but just from watching these experiences, if you’re not on the same page, the communication really helps.

And I think in those situations where you’re not on the same page, for example, thinking back to suppression, because we’ve been highlighting that strategy a bit, that can hurt that. And kind contribute to not being on the same page. So I think that would be my take.

Wells: Yeah, I– it’s interesting. So one way I’m thinking about how we might quantify being on the same page is sharing emotions, like having the same emotions or same type of emotions at the same time. So feeling positive together or feeling negative together. And some of the work I’ve done, we also bring couples to the lab and have them engage in a conflict conversation.

So we ask them to talk about an area of disagreement in their relationship for 10 or 15 minutes. And we have looked– So after the conversation, we have them rate from with a rating dial of how positive to negative they’re feeling moment to moment. It’s a 9 point scale. And so we can quantify the number of seconds in which both partners are saying they felt positive or negative.

And also the number of seconds in which one person was feeling positive while the other person was feeling negative. So that, I think, would be a proxy for not being on the same page, right. One person’s feeling good, the other person’s feeling bad. And we do see that these shared emotional states, both positive and negative, are very important in predicting outcomes like relationship satisfaction.

And in particular, sharing positive emotion with both partners said they were feeling positive that the accumulation, the number of seconds in which that is the case is usually predictive of better relationship or marital satisfaction. And so I think being on the same page can look different in different ways depending on how you define that.

We’re not saying that they’re necessarily feeling the exact same emotion, but that they’re both feeling positive can be pretty powerful, especially in the context of a conflict conversation where they’re not necessarily seeing eye to eye.

Sizek: This also raises a question about the different strategies we have to measure people’s emotions. So in this case, you recorded a conversation and then you had them go back and revisit the conversation in order to measure their feelings. How does this differ? And what are some of the other strategies that we have for studying people’s emotional states over time?

Wells: Yeah, so that is a big one. So that rating dial I mentioned, I think we both have looked at those data, both Felicia and I. And that’s a really interesting one, because it’s dynamic. And so it is the closest we can really get to getting people’s moment to moment emotions without stopping them every second and saying, what are you feeling now? What are you feeling now?

That would totally interrupt the flow of, of a real conversation. So videotaping it and having them watch it back and give these continuous ratings is a very useful way to get at that. Another method that I really love is behavioral coding. And so again, we videotape the conversations and then based on whatever it is that we’re interested in, there are different systems for measuring different behaviors.

So you could quantify the number of times people smiled or the number of different expressions that people do. And so that’s another– more third party way of getting at an aspect of emotional functioning, which is emotional expression and emotional behavior. Whereas the rating dial is more subjective experience. How do you say you were feeling?

Behavior is a independent way of measuring emotion in the lab.

Zerwas: Yeah, I think I agree completely with both of those and use those same approaches. The only thing I’ll add is that I don’t use this approach very often, but you can also do a daily diaries to track emotion over a longer period of time. So for example, some studies look at two week periods where couples will fill out a daily diary every night and some people will even do it two days– or two times a day.

And this can be really interesting to track things over time as well, because like Jenna was saying, typically when we’re using the rating dial in the lab, we have to do shorter time frames. We’re looking within a very specific conversation, whereas daily diaries can capture more nuanced contexts over time.

Sizek: And this gets us also to this question of how to match up these ratings of these 15 minute periods where you might have someone talking about a conflict that they have with their partner. And matching that up to longer term consequences or longer term relationships that they have, which is precisely what Jenna is studying and looking at these older adult couples.

Can you tell us a little bit more about how you try to figure out the match between short conversations that you have and then these longer term impacts?

Wells: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, we brought couples into the lab. This was actually like 20, 30 years ago, where couples came into the lab and they had this conflict conversation for 15 minutes and we measured their behavior, like I mentioned, their subjective experience using that rating dial. And we also measured their physiology.

And it’s pretty amazing when you think about how much information we can glean from just a 15 minute conversation. We developed– so in the year– the last couple of years, we developed different ways of looking at that data and measuring things that we were interested in. And we were really interested in this idea of positivity resonance, which I can elaborate on.

Positivity resonance is a term that we use to refer to brief moments of interpersonal connection that are defined by 3 characteristics. So one, they both people or all people, if it’s a group, are feeling positive together, even mild levels of positivity. Both are all people are feeling positive. They are syncing up in their physiology.

So, your heart rates are increasing or decreasing at the same time. And they have what’s called caring, nonverbal synchrony. And so this is really just we are mirroring each other’s behavioral expressions. Doesn’t have to be the same exact expression. We might be moving at the same rhythm. And often these gestures or expressions are things that signal affiliation and care.

So leaning forward, nodding, head tilts, things– making eye contact or all important ingredients of caring, nonverbal synchrony. So these three ingredients, we think are defined what is a very potent, powerful moment of positivity resonance or positive emotional connection. But basically, the extent to which both partners in the couple are sharing positive emotion, they’re feeling positive together, they’re syncing up and their behavior and their physiology.

And so we measured all these different– we came up with five different ways of quantifying this. And I came in as a graduate student and we were interested in the long term health outcomes of this concept of positivity resonance. And so we actually had an elaborate way of recontacting folks from contact information they’ve given us a long time ago, looking people up in databases, going on ancestry.com to find mortality, death records and things like that.

And so once we had pretty much collected, we were able to find information from folks on their mortality, whether they were living or had passed away. And when they had passed away for about 90% of the sample, which was the sample was like 300 people. And so from all these people, we were able to measure like when they had died or if they were still alive.

And we found that couples who had more of these moments of positivity resonance, more shared, positive emotion in the lab, 30 years earlier, that predicted longer lives, increased longevity. And so I think it just speaks to the utility of this approach, which is, you know, bringing people into the laboratory under well controlled conditions and eliciting emotion.

I think that why– the reason why it was so powerful is because we brought them in as dyads. We measured their actual lives, people, how they interact with each other. These are couples discussing a conflict. This is something that probably happens every day, if not every week. And so that snapshot that we capture from the 15 minute conversation is very telling as to what their regular lives actually look like.

And so that’s, I think, why we were able to find these long term health outcomes, both in terms of health as well as longevity.

Zerwas: I have a quick follow up on that. Did you manipulate anything in the lab? Or was it more of a naturalistic conversation between them. It was a naturalistic conversation. So just, please discuss a topic about that you disagree upon for 15 minutes.

Wells: Yeah, so I just think that’s a really important point, too. When you’re thinking about trying to predict longer term outcomes for couples as well. I think I would argue that it would be difficult to find the same effects if you manipulated something in the lab. So what I mean by that is, if you had one partner use suppression but they don’t typically use suppression, it might be difficult to generalize that to what’s happening in their everyday lives.

Whereas when we bring people into the lab, like Jenna said, we are creating a more controlled environment. But we’re not, in some cases, the approaches we use, we don’t force them to behave in ways that they don’t typically. And so I think that’s why it’s more generalizable to predict these longer term outcomes over time, because it’s what they typically do in their relationship.

Wells: Exactly, yeah. It’s like a window into their everyday lives, which is pretty fascinating.

Sizek: Yeah and this also for me, this raises a question, too, about the way that, obviously, you can control a little bit in the lab. You’re not trying to control a ton, but you can’t control the rest of their lives. So how did you try to control for other aspects, for example, the economic status of the different couples who are in this study? Or other health risks that they may have come into the study with?

Wells: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we used everything that we have at our disposal to try to account for all those different aspects that people bring to the table. So we accounted for you– we had them fill out a– we had them fill out a questionnaire about their health. So we controlled in the analysis– we controlled for their sort of initial number of health symptoms.

We also asked them questions about health related behaviors. So smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption, frequency of exercise, those are all things we control for as well. Age, income, education. You know, those are all really important things to control for, because we know there’s a long literature showing that those are all very powerful predictors of health.

So all of those health related variables, we tried our best to control for. Of course, it’s not perfect. And we also looked at things that were of interest to us scientifically. So we controlled for the number of moments that they felt positive by themselves, right. To show that this is really something that’s happening at the level of the dyad, the extent to which they’re both sharing positive emotion.

That’s what’s predicting their long term health, not just having, you know, a lot of positive emotions by yourself. Similarly, we also controlled for their marital satisfaction at level at the first time point. And that’s another thing in the literature that is a pretty robust predictor of long term health. And again, we found that the effect of positivity resonance, or shared positive emotion, withstood controlling for.

Marital satisfaction in terms of predicting their longevity over the 30 years. And so we do our best as scientists to try to think of all the different confounds. But of course, I think there’s probably things we left out or things that we didn’t measure that would be useful to control for in a future study. I’m curious what you control for, Felicia, when you look at these couple related outcomes.

Zerwas: Yeah, I don’t do as much of the long-term work, because you’re working with older couples. My work typically focuses on newer romantic relationships. And so, yeah, less of the aging related type things, but we do– so for example, in the lab, we will control for the intensity of the negative emotion. To make sure that it’s– the reason that they’re reporting these worse outcomes is not just because they’re feeling more negative emotion in general, but because of the strategy that they’re using, for example.

Because I tend to focus on the strategies that people use and how that relates to how the conversation goes. So usually it’s about controlling for confound in the emotion sense.

Sizek: So obviously as people age, there’s also a likelihood that people might get dementia or have other aging related diseases, which is also something that you’ve looked at in your research, Jenna, can you tell us a little bit about how this changes these dyadic relationships that you look at and what this means for folks who are caregiving for people with dementia.

Wells: Yeah, so this is a big part of the research that I do. I’m really interested in individuals who are providing what’s called informal care, so not professional or paid caregivers, but people who are providing care for their loved one with dementia, which is an umbrella term for different types of neurodegenerative diseases that occur in later life.

And we know that dementia caregiving can be a highly meaningful experience to provide care for a loved one. And at the same time, it’s extremely challenging in a number of ways. It’s just time consuming. It’s emotionally and financially burdensome, and it’s also very devastating to watch your loved one get sick. These are neurodegenerative diseases refer to diseases that are progressive.

So it gets worse, and there isn’t a cure for these diseases. So it is just a very devastating experience. And so when we think about the ways that this impacts caregivers, I think a lot of the research has focused on different aspects of caregiving, the burdens of caregiving that are impacting caregivers, health and well-being.

And one of the really interesting and devastating changes in dementia is that people often think about Alzheimer’s disease and losing your memory. And that is the most common form of dementia. But there’s other ways in which dementia can manifest. And so one of those is that it impacts the emotional functioning, the emotions of the person with the disease.

And this can happen in a variety of different ways. Sometimes individuals who have dementia lose their ability to empathize or have empathy for other people. It can also lead to people having different displays of emotion or being disinhibited in the way that they display their emotion. Sometimes with dementia, for example, frontotemporal dementia is associated with lower disgust reactivity. And so it can lead people with the disease to behave in ways that others would find disgusting.

And so, as you can imagine, losing your loved one to this illness is not just– it’s not just sad because you’re losing somebody that you care about, and you’re having to really put your life on hold for a bit to take care of them. But you’re also seeing the person that you love and that you knew potentially for a long time really transform in front of your eyes.

And I think that can be really, really hard for, for people. And so a lot of the research I’ve done looks at spousal caregiving relationships. So caring for your partner. And so theoretically you’ve had a long relationship or you’ve had some relationship with this person before that is changing. And one thing I haven’t looked at, but I think is really fascinating is adult children, caring for their parents with dementia.

And whereas, in a spousal context in a marriage, you might think I signed up for this, in sickness and in health, but there’s a lot more role conflict, I think, for adult children, caring for their parents that they aren’t necessarily prepared for or have agreed to. And so that’s a whole other interesting area I think, that we don’t know as much about.

Sizek: Yeah, so you mentioned how often people with dementia no longer have those sorts of emotional responses that are normal. They might not notice that they do something that is perceived normally by people to be disgusting, for example. How does this affect the caregivers? And what are some of the strategies that you found are effective for caregivers, for people with dementia?

Yeah, I think that this is a big one for caregivers, because in particular, when patients – when people with dementia — are behaving in ways that are others would find disgusting, that can be really shocking and upsetting, especially when you’re in public or around strangers. And so I think it often leads caregivers to feeling embarrassed or ashamed and withdrawing from their social environments.

It’s harder to leave the house because you don’t really want to deal with an incident related to the person with dementia acting in a way that’s embarrassing or socially inappropriate. And so that can lead caregivers to be really, really isolated. And that’s something we hear about a lot, is that it can be very lonely to be a caregiver, especially later on in the disease.

And so I think, you know, in terms of strategies, it is at first, we’ve been talking about, I think acceptance is a really big one. This is a situation that is in large part out of your control. And so it’s really important to accept the things that you are feeling, accept what you can change and what you can’t change. And then secondly, like I mentioned, it’s a very lonely and isolated environment for caregivers.

And so I find that being able to call on people that you love, people you really trust, other family members, other friends to support you during this time is so, so important. Social support is really a key factor in having better outcomes for caregivers of people with dementia. And so, I think it’s helpful probably to talk to the people you love early on in the disease.

So that before it gets to the point where it feels overwhelming, you’ve arranged to have people be there for you. Either in an instrumental way, like helping you get rides to the doctor’s office or delivering groceries. But also just having someone who can be there help you with that interpersonal emotion regulation and probably just be, validating and accepting of what you’re going through.

Zerwas: I’m curious, is there any work looking at reappraisal in caregivers. Because the reason for this is because reappraisal is typically more helpful in situations that we can’t control. Whereas if there is something that we can do about the situation, usually reappraisal is not that helpful because we should actually take a more problem focused approach and try to do something about it.

But in this case, just from what you were saying, it’s so much is out of their control. So I’m just curious if there’s any work on reappraisal in that context?

Wells: There’s not a lot of work looking at specific emotion, regulation, strategies and caregivers. In fact, very few people take the approach that we take in our lab or we bring people into the lab and measure their emotion regulation under these controlled laboratory conditions. There are some works– some studies that use the method you mentioned earlier, like experience sampling or daily diary studies that look at different emotion regulation strategies.

Some of this work finds that caregivers who experience more anger, for example, have harder– have a harder time, have more mental health problems. But I think that the reappraisal is a potential strategy is something that would be really useful for future researchers in this area, especially in dementia caregiving.

Sizek: So as we wrap up, obviously both of your research has a lot to do with our daily lives. And thinking about how emotions play a role in how we live. And so what are some of the most useful things that you’ve found from your research, either from your own– from your own life? You don’t have to provide any specific examples or just generally in thinking about the role that emotions play in our everyday lives.

Zerwas: Yeah, I think a big one that I’ve taken away from just reading the literature and also the work that I’ve done is that context really does matter. I think when I came to graduate school, I was, making broad, sweeping generalizations about this is good, this is bad. And I know I already alluded to this earlier, but I truly stand by that statement that nothing really is all good or bad.

I think there’s a time and place to use different strategies, and my recent work shows that suppression can be bad for the self, but actually not for the relationship dynamic. So it’s really complex. And so I think picking your battles is actually a very appropriate phrase. There are some moments where I think it might be better to hold something in too for the sake of the social setting.

Whereas if you do that all the time, that’s not great either, because then you don’t get to feel authentic or get your voice heard. So not– I don’t know if this is helpful concrete advice because it’s like, well, I don’t know. But really, the big takeaway is I think learning to use things flexibly will be really helpful in the long term.

Wells: I totally echo that advice. Context matters. And yeah, I think one of the things that I’ve really been thinking about since doing this work, looking at positivity resonance in couples. And so this idea that the more that we’re sharing, even just a very brief moment of positive connection with other people, that there’s these long term downstream effects for health and well being.

We don’t have data to support this yet, but the theorizing suggests that these moments are powerful, also in what’s called weaker ties. So having moments where you connect over a positive emotion or a positive feeling with people in your day to day life, that is good for your health, that is a positive health behavior. Like exercising or eating healthy, doing this is something that’s good for you.

And so I find myself trying to be more open to those moments in my day to day life. I’m slightly extroverted, so it’s probably a little bit easier for me. But I think that even for introverts, this is true. And actually there’s some work that suggests that introverts can be surprised by how much they enjoy an interaction with other people.

But practical things you can do is just making eye contact with other people in your day to day life. If you’re on a run, you can maybe smile at other runners that are going past you. Or even like making eye contact with the baby in line at the grocery store. And making a silly face, or laughing with somebody, laughing with a coworker.

All these little things are actually very good for your health. And so I think that of course, it’s great to study them in our close relationships because those are the people that we interact with the most, our family members, our spouses. But I think that there’s good reason to think that those moments are also accessible to us in our entire environments and social worlds.

And so I think I would recommend folks to be more open to having those very, very brief micro moments of connection with other people because it actually can be beneficial for your health.

Sizek: Great well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and teaching us a lot about emotions.

Zerwas: Yeah, thank you so much.

Wells: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

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