Individual and interpersonal emotion regulation among adults with substance use disorders and matched controls

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Self-report studies show that negative emotional states and ineffective use of emotion regulation strategies are key maintaining factors of substance use disorders (SUD). However, experimental research into emotional processing in adults with SUD is in its infancy. Theoretical conceptualizations of emotion regulation have shifted from a focus on individual (internal) processes to one that encompasses social and interpersonal functions – including the regulation of facial expression of emotion. The purpose of this study was to examine the individual and interpersonal emotion regulation capacity of 35 adults in residential treatment diagnosed with a SUD compared to 35 demographically matched controls (both samples Mage = 25 years; 37% females).

Design and methods

Participants completed a facial emotion expression flexibility task while viewing emotive images, as well as the Difficulties of Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) and the Social (Emotion) Expectancy Scale (SES).


Adults in SUD treatment experienced significantly more emotion regulation difficulties on all DERS subscales than controls. They also reported higher levels of negative self-evaluation and social expectancies not to feel negative emotions (anxiety and depression) compared to controls. Moreover, when viewing emotive images, the treatment sample showed significantly less flexibility of their emotional expression compared to the control sample.


These findings demonstrate that the awareness, expression, and regulation of emotions are particularly difficult for people with SUD and this may maintain their substance use and provide an important target for treatment.

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