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American Psychosomatic Society Mid-Year Meeting: Emotions in Social Relationships

Recently, we welcomed Dr. Siobhán Howard as a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, as well as Siobhán Griffin, who is completing her PhD on emotion regulation and stress reactivity under Dr. Howard's supervision. Welcome, both! Here, Siobhán Griffin blogs about her trip to the American Psychosomatic Society Mid-Year Meeting in Berkeley (October 20-21 2017), with a special focus on Emotions in Social Relationships.


After 23 hours travelling, a 2-hour delay and an over-booked flight I finally arrived in Berkeley, California for the Mid-Annual Meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society. The theme of the meeting was “Emotions in Social Relationships”, with several prolific speakers attending. As my own PhD research focuses on emotion regulation and health – I just had to go (the location was just a bonus)! I spent the first day exploring the beautiful campus of Berkeley University, in awe of the amazing Redwoods and the effort that Americans put into decorating their houses for Halloween – they really go all out!

Some examples of the Halloween decorations I came across.

The first day of the conference, which was held by the stunning Marina, meant an early start – a 7:30am breakfast! Although early it proved a great way to meet other researchers! The conference was different from others I’ve attended. There were no parallel sessions; instead experts in psychosomatic medicine and affective science spoke about their area of speciality. In this case, there was not one, but four, introductory keynote speakers; Christoph Herrmann-Lingen, Robert Levenson, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, and Tim Smith. The keynote session highlighted the wealth of individual difference research to date, and the implications of this on physical health. However, we often overlook the influence of social relationships, and how relationships and individual differences interact to affect health outcomes. Paula Pietromonaco discussed how attachment insecurity, compared to attachment security, leads to different cortisol patterns during conflict discussion. Ongoing research from the Growth in Early Marriage Project emphasised that cortisol responses are not only affected by an individual’s attachment style, but also the attachment style of their spouse. Again, underlining the need to consider individual difference research in the context of dyads, and wider social relationships.

Later that afternoon two talks really stood out to me. Tené Lewis and Wendy Barry Mendes discussed discrimination and cardiovascular responses to stress. They pointed out that research examining discrimination often only asks individuals to report their own experiences of racism. These authors suggest that expectations of (or perceived) racial discrimination influences stress responsivity, outside of personal experiences. One branch of this research found that there were differences in cardiovascular responding to stress tasks if individuals were placed in a same-race dyad or a cross-race dyad. When individuals in the cross-race dyads received negative feedback, stress response patterns were indicative of an approach/challenge orientated response. For same-race partners in the negative feedback condition cardiovascular reactivity was suggestive of a threat orientated response. Following these fruitful discussions, and a quick coffee it was time for the poster session where I presented my current research on the role of gender in emotion regulation. Despite the long day, the poster session was lively, and it was a privilege to receive feedback on my work from such experts in the field!

The process of social regulation of emotion

The second day began with Prof. Kevin Ochsner speaking about interpersonal emotion regulation. He highlighted that when we regulate our emotions we usually do so in the context of other people. These individuals, whether physically present or a mental representation of them (e.g. How would Ann respond to this? What would Ann think if I responded in this way?) influence how we respond to our emotions. Prof. Ochsner and Dr. Jamil Zaki’s research emphasises the need to modify the process model of emotion regulation to include the social regulation of emotions. I could ramble on for days about the exciting research that is taking place, and how this field is expanding. I certainly came home with food for thought, and ideas for future research!

When the conference was over I headed to San Francisco for a few days and had the opportunity to see all the touristy things: “The Painted Ladies”, the seals at Pier 39, the Academy of Sciences, Coit Tower, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, etc. I even managed to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge to the next town, Sausalito.

Underestimating cycling in 31°C heat!

Finally, my time was up and it was time to return home well-rested and full of inspiration to continue with my PhD!

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