Understanding emotions: the key for young people

Meet... Anne Margit Reitsema

Portret van Anne Margit Reitsema

Where in your body do you feel that you are angry? Or frightened? Or sad? The better young people are able to describe and recognise emotions, the better they are able to deal with them. Anne Margit Reitsema has been working for several months as a postdoctoral fellow in the Thriving & Healthy Youth community. In her research, she immerses herself in the world of physical and mental characteristics of emotions in young people.

Why do you find research into emotions so interesting?

On the one hand, emotions are an expression of how well people are doing. If you experience quite a lot of positive emotions and few negative emotions, you will usually be feeling good. On the other hand, the way young people deal with emotions can also form a basis for patterns or problems in their (adult) lives. I study these patterns of emotions over a relatively long period of time.

What is your research about?

I examine how well adolescents are able to differentiate between various emotions by looking at how many different words they use for emotions. For example, with every negative feeling, a young person may indicate that they are ‘angry’ and ‘sad’ and ‘anxious’, instead of being angry one time, sad another time and anxious a third time. In this case, the young person is not particularly good at distinguishing between different negative emotions. In general, the more detailed you can be when distinguishing between emotions, the better you are able to deal with them.

How do you study that?

Emotions are often short-lived and can disappear again just like that. That's why I use diary studies in which the study participants can check in with themselves at different times: how angry, happy or sad do I feel at the moment? I examine whether patterns of specific emotions can be seen, and whether these are related to how good a person feels in a particular day. I also ask young people to indicate where they feel certain emotions in their body. In this way, I also try to identify the physical component of emotions.

Why is this physical component of emotions interesting?

We sometimes forget in psychology that we are not just a head, but also have a whole body. As a result, we also need to examine what is happening in the body. The physical experience is often a starting point that you unconsciously use to determine how you feel. If a teenager feels tension in his stomach before a presentation, he can interpret it in various different ways: as ‘I'm looking forward to it’, or perhaps as ‘I'm dreading it.’

If a teenager feels tension in his stomach before a presentation, he can interpret it in various different ways: as ‘I'm looking forward to it’, or perhaps as ‘I'm dreading it.’

I therefore examine not only how well young people are able to describe emotions with words in my research, but also how good they are at recognising the physical feeling of emotions. If adolescents feel better about what is happening in their body when they experience an emotion, they may also be better able to deal with these feelings. This is even more relevant for young people as puberty causes numerous physical changes.

How are emotions and psychological well-being connected?

Almost all mental disorders have an emotional component. Examples include people feeling sad in the case of depression, or fear with an anxiety disorder. The classic image is that you have psychopathology on the one hand and well-being on the other. If you’re feeling fine, you won’t have mental health problems and if you don’t have mental health problems, you will be feeling fine. However, the reality is more nuanced: there are some adolescents who are unhappy or feel lonely, but will not satisfy the conditions for a diagnosis if they see a psychologist. Sometimes they can’t be helped as a result, even though negative emotions are making them feel unhappy or sad.

What do you still hope to investigate in the future?

If I do find evidence for the connection between how good young people are at distinguishing between physical and verbal elements of emotions and the regulation of emotions, I would like to do something with this. Develop an app that helps children and young people to listen to their bodies better, for example. Even though this kind of app might not change a child's living environment if they are experiencing a difficult childhood, it would still help them greatly to learn how to deal with negative emotions.