Within the mind's eye: Negative mental imagery activates different emotion regulation strategies in high versus low socially anxious individuals
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BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: The link between social anxiety (SA) and maladaptive emotion regulation has been clearly established, but little is known about the spontaneous regulation strategies that may be activated during social stress by negative involuntary mental images and whether the nature of such strategies might distinguish individuals with high vs. low trait SA. METHODS: Participants with high (n = 33) or low (n = 33) trait SA performed an evaluative speech and reported whether they experienced an involuntary negative mental image during the task. They also rated their negative affect (NA) and positive affect (PA) and the extent to which they viewed their image as being controllable and malleable. Finally, they described the types of strategies they spontaneously used to try to control or change their image intrusions. Reported strategies were then subjected to a content analysis and categorized by blinded coders. RESULTS: Among high SA participants, image controllability was both diminished overall and positively correlated with PA. Whereas 90% of low SA individuals reported that they spontaneously self-regulated by altering the content or perceptual features of their images, only about half of the high SA participants used this strategy, with the other 50% reporting that they either suppressed their images or succumbed passively to them in whatever form they took. LIMITATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS: Although these initial findings require replication in future experimental studies on clinical samples, they also help to enrich our understanding of the strategies that are commonly used by high and low SA individuals to manage their image intrusions during in-vivo stress and suggest potential avenues for future research on the role of imagery in adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation.
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