Impact of social anxiety and social context on college students’ emotion regulation strategy use: An experience sampling study

Abstract

Socially anxious individuals typically select more avoidant emotion regulation (ER) strategies than non-anxious individuals, contributing to interpersonal difficulties. The present study utilized smartphone-delivered experience sampling over 14 days to assess how actual and desired social situations predicted reports of ER strategy use in 115 undergraduate students with varying levels of social anxiety symptoms. After controlling for multiple comparisons, results indicated that higher (vs. lower) baseline social anxiety symptoms predicted endorsing at least one of the available eight ER strategies relatively more often than reporting no strategy use, in the context of high negative affect. We did not find the hypothesized positive relationship between social anxiety symptoms and endorsements of avoidant- (e.g., expressive suppression) versus engagement-oriented (e.g., cognitive reappraisal) ER strategies in the context of high negative affect. However, state social desire interacted with trait social anxiety at high negative affect to predict the use of an ER strategy, although the simple effects analyses at high and low levels of social desire were not statistically reliable. Collectively, our results demonstrate the importance of considering both trait-level social anxiety symptoms and in-the-moment social context when studying ER strategy selection. The importance of assessing intrinsic motivational goals and beliefs in the context of ER strategy use is also discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    There were no demographic differences (i.e., age, gender, and race/ethnicity) in response rates for those who completed 2 or fewer surveys per day (n = 50) versus those who responded to more than 2 surveys per day (n = 65; all ps > .43). We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this concern.

  2. 2.

    Participants may have differed in their endorsement of “no ER” over the course of the study, potentially signalling non-compliance. We attempted to address this concern by assessing the use of “no ER” before and after 1 week in the study. There was only about a 10% increase in using this option after being in the study for 1 week and only 57 out of 115 participants displayed an increase (49.56%). The other participants either reported the same or fewer endorsements of “no ER” after 1 week. We also looked at the rate of selecting “no ER” per day, per participant (on average), where we found a relatively normal distribution of responses from 0 to 100% (i.e., some participants always reported that they were regulating). This pattern suggests that the distribution of individual differences in frequency of ER strategy use follows a predictable pattern, where some participants are more likely to report regulation while others are less likely. We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising these concerns.

  3. 3.

    While preparing this manuscript, an additional statistical method was attempted that incorporated weighting of the individual strategies within avoidant ER and engagement ER clusters. That is, given that there were a different number of ER strategies per cluster (i.e., three avoidant and five engagement), the selection of “distraction” could be assigned a higher weight versus “cognitive reappraisal” (i.e., one-third vs. one-fifth). A downside to this approach is that the orthogonal contrasts required six additional sets of codes that we were unable to exclude in the generalized linear mixed model, adding a high number of variables and tests (i.e., 54) to our models. For simplicity and ease of interpretation, we retained the analyses described in the “Methods” section and provide the results of this secondary analytic method in the Supplementary Materials section for transparency.

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Funding

This study was supported by a University of Virginia Postdoctoral and Predoctoral Fellowship Grant awarded to the two senior authors, and a R01MH113752 Grant to the final author.

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Correspondence to Alexander R. Daros.

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Daros, A.R., Daniel, K.E., Meyer, M.J. et al. Impact of social anxiety and social context on college students’ emotion regulation strategy use: An experience sampling study. Motiv Emot 43, 844–855 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09773-x

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Keywords

  • Social anxiety
  • Emotion regulation
  • Ecological momentary assessment