Does the ability to express different emotions predict different indices of physical health? A skill-based study of physical symptoms and heart rate variability

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Abstract

Objectives

The outward expression of emotion has been frequently associated with better health outcomes, whereas suppressing emotion is thought to contribute to worse physical health. However, work has typically focused on trait expressive tendencies and the possibility that individual differences in the ability to express specific emotions may also be associated with health has not been widely tested.

Design

A cross-sectional study of community dwelling adults.

Methods

One hundred and twenty-eight participants aged 18–88 years completed questionnaires assessing demographics and health status, before attending a testing session in which resting heart rate variability (HRV) was assessed. Participants then completed a performance-based test of expressive regulatory skill in which they were instructed to enhance and suppress their emotional expressions while they watched film clips validated to elicit amusement, sadness, and anger. Participants rated subjective emotional experience before and after each clip, and their degree of expressivity was scored using FACS-based Noldus FaceReader.

Results

Missing data resulted in a final sample size of 117. Linear regressions controlling for age, sex, diagnoses, and trait emotion revealed that greater ability to enhance sad expressions was associated with higher HRV while the ability to enhance expressions of joy was associated with lower symptom interference. In parallel models, the ability to flexibly regulate (both enhance and suppress) expressions of joy and sadness was also associated with lower symptom interference.

Conclusions

Findings suggest that the ability to regulate expressions of both sadness and joy is associated with health indices even when controlling for trait affect and potential confounds. The present findings offer early evidence that individual differences in the ability to regulate the outward expression of emotion may be relevant to health and suggest that expressive regulatory skills offer a novel avenue for research and intervention.

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