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Is there more than one type of relief?

25 March 2021


Eva Krockow, PhD :
Do you know that delicious feeling of a lucky escape? That happy moment of "Thank goodness!" when a disaster has been averted, a stressor removed or a problem resolved? I last experienced this feeling when making it out of the dentist chair unscathed and-let me tell you-it was good!
As the happy flipside of regret, relief is a feeling of pleasant surprise or reassurance. The magnitude of the emotional response evoked can range dramatically. It may include small trickles of sudden relaxation (e.g., when reassuring oneself that the stove is-indeed-turned off). It may also cover the monumental sense of happiness following a near-death experience (e.g., when avoiding a lethal car accident through a split-second reaction).
While relief is a common experience shared by many, the concept could be more complex than initially thought. According to recent scientific advances, there may be more than one type of relief.
Counterfactual Relief vs. Temporal Relief
To understand the complexity the relief, consider the two examples below:
1. Kofi has an important exam coming up, the result of which will likely determine his career. He knows the test is going to be tough, and even though he has been revising thoroughly, he does not feel confident. In fact, he is terrified of failing the exam and ruining his professional future. Once he completes the exam, he realises the questions are much easier than anticipated. He is delighted and surprised that his worst fears didn't come true, and he experiences a wonderful sense of relief.
2. Aisha has an important exam coming up, the result of which will likely determine her career. The last couple of weeks have been very stressful. She has been sacrificing every free minute to cram in revision and prepare for the test. Once she completes the exam, all the stress, tension and worried concentration finally disappear. Aisha is delighted that the unpleasant period of revision is finally over, and she experiences a wonderful sense of relief.
Even though Kofi and Aisha go through very similar life experiences and even though both of them feel a strong sense of relief upon completion of their respective exams, it is obvious that the main reasons for their relief differ. The type of relief experienced by Kofi refers to a situation, where something unpleasant (i.e., failing the test) is avoided. The type of relief experienced by Aisha refers to a situation, where something unpleasant (i.e., a stressful period of revision) comes to an end.
To differentiate the two types of relief, researchers have introduced the terms "counterfactual relief" when referring to something negative that did not happen, and "temporal relief" when referring to something negative that has ended.
Evidence for a Distinction
Recent experiments by psychologist Aidan Feeney and his research team aimed to test the two types of relief in real-life decision contexts. One study involved investigating people's feelings of relief about political events such as the UK vote to leave the European Union and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.
More specifically, participants were asked to rate the level of relief experienced considering that the event was finally over. Then, they had to indicate how much relief they felt given the event's actual outcome. The purpose of these two questions was to separate temporal from counterfactural relief and test whether they could be measured independently.
The study results provided clear evidence for the existence of two distinct types of relief. In line with the researchers' hypotheses, the relief ratings for the event being over were quite separate from the ratings for the event's outcome, and, crucially, they depended on the participants' political orientations. For example, people who had voted to remain in the European Union frequently reported being relieved that the Brexit decision had finally been made and that the event was over. Yet, their feelings about the actual outcome of the event were quite the opposite (low levels of relief and high levels of regret). Similarly, while some Trump voters were relieved that the election had passed, they reported displeasure rather than relief given Biden's overall win. What Is the Purpose of Relief?
Psychologists have shown that relief is a complex emotion with a variety of possible sources. But why do we experience relief in the first place? What is the point?
As with most feelings, relief might offer an indirect evolutionary advantage. Drawing on our own experiences of relief from the past, we can anticipate when we are likely to feel relief again in the future. With relief being a positive emotion, its anticipation can motivate us to persevere in challenging circumstances or put us through unpleasant tasks.
For example, dreary exam revision might be easier to get on with if students imagine the feeling of joyous relief once they have passed the test. Indeed, evidence for this evolutionary purpose was provided by a recent study on health behaviours in the context of cancer self-examination. Participants were more likely to examine themselves for symptoms of testicular cancer if they anticipated reassuring results and a subsequent feeling of relief.
To stimulate or amplify the positive sensations associated with relief, physical and mindfulness exercises can be helpful. Calming yoga poses like supported forward-folds or gentle spinal movements can help to release tension. When it comes to physical stress relief, my personal favourite is a simple "legs-up-the-wall" pose with the rather fanciful yoga name of "Viparita Karani." By lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall, it's possible to kick-start the entire circulation and create physical relief in a beautifully passive way. Have you tried it?

(Eva Krockow, Ph.D., is a researcher in decision making at the University of Leicester).

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