Have you ever said something out of anger, only to regret it later? Ever reach out to someone toxic because you were feeling lonely? How about scarf down a box of cookies when you were sad (giving yourself a stomach ache on top of it all)?
Situations like these leave us feeling worse off than before, but in the heat of the moment, they feel like a suitable outlet, a quick way to find relief. Why? Because of a lack of emotional regulation. All of these situations can be avoided by practicing emotional regulation skills to help us manage our emotions in a healthy way.
Sadly, these skills aren’t taught in a classroom, nor are they always modeled to us in our upbringing, causing us to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like the ones mentioned above.
But that ends today. You can learn the emotional regulation skills that will bring inner calm to any chaotic situation, and ultimately, help you feel your best, protect your relationships and improve your mental health.
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage your feelings-and the thoughts and behaviors that influence and are influenced by them-in a healthy way. It is reacting in proportion to the situation.
Just like your body regulates internal temperature by making you sweat when your environment is too hot or shiver when it’s too cold, emotional regulation requires that you adjust your thoughts and behaviors to balance what’s going on around you that is causing that emotion.
The opposite of this is emotional dysregulation. The American Psychological Association defines emotional dysregulation as "an extreme or inappropriate emotional response to a situation.”
Again, thinking in terms of how your body regulates your internal temperature: If you started shivering uncontrollably even though you’re lying on a hot, sunny beach, you’d know something was wrong, right? Similarly, if your emotions are swinging to an extreme when it’s not appropriate for the situation, something might be off. Emotional regulation can help you restore balance.
But why practice emotional regulation in the first place? Well, it turns out these skills bring an abundance of benefits, such as:
Thoughts racing. Heart pounding. Tossing and turning. If you’re experiencing these when you’re trying to fall asleep, it may be due to emotion dysregulation. Avoiding your feelings or stewing in anger can definitely keep you from getting some much-needed shuteye.
Swedish researchers found that decreased emotional regulation was linked to an 11% increased risk of developing insomnia or having persistent insomnia. They surveyed 2,333 adults in Sweden, and their findings were reported in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
Do you snap at your partner when you’ve had a hard day? Or buy things you don’t need just to blow off steam after work? Impulsive actions often stem from emotional dysregulation.
When we feel out of control of our emotions, they’ll start controlling us. Emotional regulation can help you manage your feelings and gain better impulse control so you don’t end up doing things you’ll regret later.
When your emotions are balanced, you may feel better overall. In a 2017 PLOS One research paper, researchers found that emotion regulation is a positive predictor of well-being. They even developed a model to help clinicians use emotion regulation as a factor in their diagnoses.
Snapping at a spouse, instead of talking about what you’re feeling, or ignoring the red flags in a relationship, instead of addressing them, are some examples of what happens when you lack emotional regulation skills.
By tapping into your emotions, understanding what they’re telling you and managing them in healthy ways, you can actually form much stronger relationships. You’ll have the ability to recognize what you’re experiencing and find constructive ways to express yourself, rather than doing something destructive.
You may have heard of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), but what about DBT (dialectical behavior therapy)? DBT is often used to help people who are struggling to regulate emotion.
So what’s the difference between CBT and DBT? I asked licensed psychologist Dr. Karol Darsa, the founder of Reconnect Integrative Trauma Treatment Center in California.
“CBT mainly teaches people to change their thoughts so they can feel differently,” Darsa explains. “The belief is that thoughts and feelings are interconnected. By contrast, DBT primarily teaches tools to regulate intense emotions and improve interpersonal relationships.”
Sounds useful, right? DBT teaches four main skills:
If you’re interested in this treatment modality to help strengthen your emotional regulation skills, Google for DBT therapists or reach out to mental health counselors and ask if they’re trained in DBT.
Emotional intelligence-the ability to identify emotions in yourself and others and respond in an appropriate way-goes hand-in-hand with emotional regulation. EI itself encompasses multiple skills, which thankfully, anyone can learn to build.
A large component of EI that will help with your emotional regulation is identifying emotions. Becoming very specific about what you’re feeling is helpful in informing how you cope with that emotion. Familiarize yourself with the emotion wheel, which breaks down all the primary emotions into their nuanced subcategories, allowing you to learn what each feeling is trying to tell you. You’ll learn something new each time!
If you want to build emotional intelligence, join our free Increase EQ online coaching program. AI-powered chatbot Coach Marlee will guide you through strategies and check in with you throughout your journey.
Someone who is reacting with compassion recognizes the suffering in someone else and is moved to ease their pain. Self-compassion is doing that for yourself.
“Self-compassion is the act of treating yourself as if you were your best friend,” explains psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, “and when you treat yourself well, you treat others well.”
If your best friend was upset because someone else at work got the promotion that she wanted, would you shame her for feeling anger? Would you tell her that she was being ridiculous? No, you would probably sit with her and tell her it’s understandable that she feels this way. You’d probably ask her if she’d like to talk about it. Extend the same compassion to yourself the next time you experience unpleasant emotions.
In a literature review published in Social Neuroscience, Marc Schipper and Franz Petermann found evidence suggesting that having too little empathy contributes to difficulty labeling emotions in one's self and in others, which can trigger emotional dysregulation.
When something bad happens, do you feel completely derailed by it? Does it continue to haunt you, causing you to fight it tooth and nail, only for it to return? Practicing radical acceptance might be the healthy coping skill you need.
“Radical acceptance is a very helpful tool for accepting things that cannot be changed,” explains licensed clinical psychologist Jacqueline Fulcher. “After someone experiences trauma or a bad event, they are unable to change the course of the event or what has happened within the past. Radical acceptance is a way to process and provide closure to these hard times.”
Radical acceptance gets a bad rap. Sometimes people think it means believing a situation or event was okay or that they’re “approving” of it. This is not true. The goal is not to feel good about something bad that happened; it’s to realize that you can’t go back and change it, thus freeing yourself from the suffering it’s been causing you.
Understandably, this is a tough skill to acquire when you have an intense emotion that you don’t want to feel, which is why it’s best to start small.
“They can first accept that they don’t want to feel at all because it is too much,” says Darsa. “Then, slowly, they move towards an acceptance of the feeling rather than wishing to feel different.”
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness is “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings.” Although the definition is simple, its practice is not. It requires you to be fully present to your environment and your feelings, even the unpleasant emotion, without judging them as good or bad.
“Mindfulness helps increase space between what we feel and how we respond (and our fight or flight response),” explains licensed professional counselor Leslie Bashioum. “When we immediately react to an emotional trigger, the ‘thinking’ part of our brain is offline. By practicing mindfulness, we create space between so we can respond rationally.”
For someone who was never taught healthy coping skills, it may be a common experience to resort to unhealthy ones, such as emotional suppression. We’ve all been there: Something upsetting, hurtful, or disgusting happens to us, and we tell ourselves, “No, I’m not upset/hurt/disgusted/angry,” and we do our best to push the feelings and thoughts away.
While that may work to curb our reactions in the short-term, eventually, our feelings will find a way to be felt-often, more intensely than before. Research has shown this time and again: Emotional suppression is harmful.
Instead of resorting to unhealthy coping skills, here are some emotion regulation strategies that actually help.
Bashioum teaches her clients this mindfulness exercise where you identify:
“The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is a simple yet powerful tool that helps our body relax and calm so we can focus again,” Bashioum says.
In her practice, Fulcher uses Marsha Linehan’s DBT therapy with her clients, teaching a particular skillset known as TIPP.
“TIPP is a crisis intervention skill designed to help lower intense emotions in order to more logically look at a situation and make a decision,” she says.
Here’s how it works:
“Think of it as hitting the reset button on our emotionally charged mind,” Fulcher says, “and allowing logical thoughts into our present awareness.”
Many times when we experience an intense emotion, we immediately jump to conclusions about the situation or the person toward whom we feel this emotion. But, what if we withheld judgment and looked at what that emotion is trying to tell us about our needs and desires?
Jackie Schuld is an art therapist and licensed associate counselor who works with women experiencing overwhelming emotions, helping them express those heavy feelings through art.
“When an unsettling emotion begins to arise, I teach clients to acknowledge the emotion without judgment,” Schuld says. “We make an initial emotion even larger when we add judgmental thoughts such as, ‘I can't believe I'm upset again’ or ‘I'm broken.’ I teach clients to set judgments aside and simply acknowledge the emotion, ‘I am feeling angry.’”
She then encourages them to get curious about the need or desire behind the emotion.
“Emotions are helpful messengers from our body,” she says.
Schuld gives the example of feeling sad after you speak to a friend. By reflecting on the emotion, you might realize the sadness is telling you that you needed to be heard or understood during that conversation, but you weren’t.
“By identifying the need, the individual can understand why the emotion is present and have it move through her, instead of spiraling into emotional dysregulation,” she says.
When learning to build emotional regulation skills, don’t forget that the body affects the mind (and vice versa).
“It may be a bit counterintuitive, but some of the most effective things we can do to regulate our emotions happen well before the emotions arise,” says Dr. Paul Greene, a psychologist with expertise in DBT.
That’s why he teaches a set of DBT skills known by the acronym PLEASE, which touches on many components of overall well-being. Here’s what PLEASE stands for:
“These things may seem basic,” says Greene, “but often when our emotions get the best of us, we've neglected at least one of these PLEASE skills. Ask yourself how good a job you're doing with each of them.”
Psychotherapist Jamie Keaton Jones says breathing exercises are a go-to strategy with her clients.
“This is a simple but powerful exercise that clients can easily take with them outside of the therapy room,” she says. “This can be particularly helpful for clients experiencing anxiety. When we are anxious, our breathing rate increases and our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide become imbalanced because we are expelling carbon dioxide faster than it's being produced. This is where we might start to feel lightheaded, uncomfortable or tingly.”
So what can you do in situations like that? Breathe in for four seconds, hold for two and exhale for four. Repeat this for a few minutes until you feel calmer.
Cognitive reappraisal is when you reframe how you think about a situation to reduce the negative emotions associated with that situation. You can reframe it by thinking positively about the event, or you might simply reframe it to be realistic and based on what you know for a fact (instead of jumping to conclusions, like we often do when we’re in emotional dysregulation).
I have an example from my own life of what happens when we don’t use cognitive reappraisal. In early 2020, I had just moved into a new apartment in a foreign country, and I was extremely anxious because the transition to a different culture was hard on me.
One day, I heard someone knocking on the door. Because I didn’t know anyone in this city, I was immediately on edge. When I looked through the peephole, I saw a man standing there with a bag.
“What’s in that bag?” I wondered, fearing the worst. “Is this some scam? Is he going to try to sell me something? Or worse?”
Later that night, I left to go shopping, and when I opened my door, I found several envelopes on the doormat. The man with the bag was the mailman!
Now, I still don’t think I should have opened the door for someone I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know, but if I had gone through some cognitive reappraisal and thought of alternate, less menacing reasons that the man was standing at my door, I wouldn’t have spent the next few hours on high alert, my palms sweating and heart racing as I worried about what bad thing might happen.
If the same situation had happened in a different context and emotional state (such as in my hometown while I was more relaxed), my thoughts might’ve looked very different. I might’ve thought, “Hm, there’s a guy at the door, and I don’t know him. He might be lost. I don’t answer the door for strangers, anyway.” And I would’ve just moved on with my life. It was only the overwhelming anxiety that made me assume the worst and feel on edge for hours.
Here are some questions that can help you use cognitive reappraisal when you find yourself in a downward emotional spiral:
As with every strategy on this list, it’s easier said than done-which is why it’s not a one-off thing but rather a habit we need to establish.
“ACES provides us with a step-by-step process we can apply in our lives, but it is through repetition and practice that we really learn how to be agile with our emotions,” Elliot says.
Everyone has emotions; learning how to rein them in so they can serve you better, rather than letting them run amuck and control you, is the key to emotional well-being.
Start small with just one of the strategies on this list. Practice it until it becomes second nature to you so the next time you feel yourself spiraling into emotional dysregulation, you can use this tool to tap into your inner calm.
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