Research Article: Mixed Emotions and Coping: The Benefits of Secondary Emotions

Date Published: August 1, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Anna Braniecka, Ewa Trzebińska, Aneta Dowgiert, Agata Wytykowska, Antonio Verdejo García.


The existing empirical literature suggests that during difficult situations, the concurrent experience of positive and negative affects may be ideal for ensuring successful adaptation and well-being. However, different patterns of mixed emotions may have different adaptive consequences. The present research tested the proposition that experiencing a pattern of secondary mixed emotion (i.e., secondary emotion that embrace both positive and negative affects) more greatly promotes adaptive coping than experiencing two other patterns of mixed emotional experiences: simultaneous (i.e., two emotions of opposing affects taking place at the same time) and sequential (i.e., two emotions of opposing affects switching back and forth). Support for this hypothesis was obtained from two experiments (Studies 1 and 2) and a longitudinal survey (Study 3). The results revealed that secondary mixed emotions predominate over sequential and simultaneous mixed emotional experiences in promoting adaptive coping through fostering the motivational and informative functions of emotions; this is done by providing solution-oriented actions rather than avoidance, faster decisions regarding coping strategies (Study 1), easier access to self-knowledge, and better narrative organization (Study 2). Furthermore, individuals characterized as being prone to feeling secondary mixed emotions were more resilient to stress caused by transitions than those who were characterized as being prone to feeling opposing emotions separately (Study 3). Taken together, the preliminary results indicate that the pattern of secondary mixed emotion provides individuals with a higher capacity to handle adversity than the other two patterns of mixed emotional experience.

Partial Text

Based on the circumstances, it is possible to feel both positive and negative emotions at the same time [1]. Mixed emotions may arise in bittersweet situations, such as winning a disappointing prize or remembering a lost love with warmth and joy. Experiencing mixed emotions seems to be a more relevant affective response to such affectively complex events than a one-valence emotion because it more accurately represents the concurrent positive and negative aspects of the event. Mixed emotional experience seems to be particularly beneficial in stressful situations because in such a circumstances, it is impossible to avoid the negative affect associated with aversive events, while a bit of positive affect may help to ameliorate the negativity experienced. The adaptive function of mixed emotions may manifest in a lowering of the negativity embodied in an aversive event: the positive affective context changes the experience of the negative emotion by reducing its physiological arousal, without eliminating the experience of the negative emotion itself [2]. Thus, experiencing mixed emotions seems to allow a decrease in distress, but it does not interfere with the emotions’ informative function. Moreover, Larsen and colleagues [3] propose that “taking the good with the bad” might actually benefit individuals during difficult times by allowing them to confront adversity and ultimately find meaning in life’s stressors, as well as feeling better.

In Study 1, we focused on the motivational function of emotions, which is considered to play a particularly important role in coping [24]. The goal was to examine the impact of various patterns of mixed emotions on coping readiness. Experiencing both positive and negative affects at the same time seems to improve coping processes because positive affects that co-occur in stressful situations associated with negative feelings have been shown to foster a broader perspective on problems, sight beyond the immediate stressors, and the generation of multiple courses of action [25]. All of these effects enhance creativity [26] and facilitate rebounding from stressful emotional experiences [4]. However, as mentioned previously, the co-occurrence of positive and negative affects in the form of separate opposing emotions produces high levels of ambivalence and tension and may thus lead to cognitive and behavioral impairment.

In line with the assertion that the important function of emotions in the context of coping is to facilitate understanding the situation [31], [32], we designed Study 2 to verify the functionality of mixed emotions with respect to stimulating thought. Experiencing positive and negative affect at the same time seems to be particularly beneficial to cognition during the process of coping with adversity. There is plenty of evidence indicating that negative mood states impair information processing during adverse circumstances. For example, experiencing negative affect fosters a mood-congruent cognitive bias toward negative information and impairs attentional disengagement from it [33]. In addition, people influenced by negativity related to personal losses tend to attach more weight to false negatives, resulting in overly narrow categorization [34]. Thus, it is possible that experiencing positive affect would reduce the detrimental effects of negativity and thus promote a correct understanding of the situation. Moreover, the explanation of the beneficial effects of mixed emotional states on coping offered by Larsen and colleagues [3] proposes that experiencing opposing affects together allows individuals to confront adversity and subsequently find meaning in difficult life circumstances. There are evidence that positive affect joined to negative feelings allows individuals to feel better and, more importantly, broadens cognitive processing, fosters access to existing knowledge, creates openness to new information [35], and promotes the processing of emotionally ambiguous information [36]. In addition, positive affect facilitates access to positive information about the self [37] that is usually ignored [38], while positive self-regard serves as a validation of emotions as information and augments reliance on emotional cues, both positive and negative, which has been proven to have a relatively strong and long-lasting effect [39]. Thus, positive affect added to negative emotional states seems to extend its informative function via soothing the experience of stress and expanding cognitive processing.

In Studies 1 and 2, the elicited negative and positive affects blended into a secondary mixed emotion increased the motivational and informative functions of the experienced emotional states. Therefore, in Study 3, we investigated the effect of the individual disposition toward feeling this pattern of mixed emotions on general resilience in real life. Resilience refers to the processes of coping with stress and adversity, which results in returning to a previous state of normal functioning or simply not showing any negative consequences [43]. Most research indicates that resilience is the effect of being able to interact with one’s environment in a way that either promotes well-being or protects against the risk factors of psychopathology [44]. In the present study, the chosen challenge was the stress of transitioning to a university, and the indicator of resilience was the ability to adjust to this considerable life adversity and return to a previous state of healthy functioning. Starting an academic education is often regarded as a period of turmoil for young people and has been associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms, anxiety, and other psychopathological problems [45], [46]. Freshmen are faced with the necessity of managing various changes occurring in many domains of their lives at once, such as being immersed in various learning environments, greater responsibilities, and new peer groups. Although starting a new school can be difficult, some students successfully adjust to this major life change in such a way that their distress and impairment decrease over time, whereas others do not.

It is impossible to avoid worry and anxiety under the pressure of adversity, but a bit of positive affect may help to ameliorate them. Such a mixed emotional response is quite natural because many stressful events consist of not only disadvantages but also opportunities, associations with better circumstances, or a few pleasant or funny elements at the least. Thus, the ability to react with mixed feelings to difficult life episodes might be an efficacious way of regulating distress and, thus, fostering resilience. We proposed that opposite affects can co-occur in the form of separate emotions arising sequentially or simultaneously or can be blended into a single emotion – a secondary mixed emotion. The present studies investigated which types of positive affect and emotional reactions to distress are more adaptive. The three presented studies provided clear and consequent evidence that mixed secondary emotions, represented in our studies by nostalgic experiences, promote coping processes by providing the participants with a higher capacity to handle adversity, as compared with sequentially and simultaneously mixed emotions. In terms of motivational function, which is traditionally seen as predominantly important regarding emotions, secondary mixed emotions produce solution-oriented action rather than avoidance, as well as faster coping resolution. Regarding the informative function, secondary mixed emotions influence thought in a way that is favorable to understanding one’s own experiences. It provides better narrative organization and easier access to self-knowledge. Furthermore, the longitudinal study provided preliminary evidence that individuals characterized by proneness to experiencing secondary mixed emotions are more resilient to the stress of transitions to new life circumstances than those characterized by proneness to feeling positive and negative emotions separately.