Understanding Emotional Regulation

Every day we experience emotions. Some days pass without us acknowledging any particular feelings, and other days we may be overwhelmed with emotions, good and bad. Our ability to accept our emotions without judgment, while still making healthy choices for ourselves is called emotional regulation.

Emotions vs. Moods

Emotions are different from moods. Moods are longer lasting and are influenced by many factors, including our environment, relationships, diet, health, and thinking. Emotions, on the other hand, can change quickly and more often. Understanding that emotions are often fleeting is a helpful first step in realizing our potential for observing them and handling them in proactive, positive, and healthy ways.

For example, let’s say you are feeling blue and irritable; you are in a bad mood. To cheer yourself up, you go to the movies. The movie has a little bit of everything: suspense, tragedy, romance, and humor. In that two-hours, you may feel several emotions: fear, anger, surprise, sadness, and happiness.

Your bad mood may or may not be changed by going to the movies, even though you experienced a gamut of emotions during the show.

How you express those emotions illustrates your emotional regulation skills. For example, if you are the only one in the theater that wants the bad guy to win, that’s OK; you are entitled to feel that way. But, if you stand up in the theater and cheer loudly for your character, you will probably be asked to leave. Your actions are destructive for yourself and others.

Our Roots in Regulation

Emotional regulation is a skill that most people learn from their parents. A toddler throwing a tantrum hasn’t learned emotional regulation yet, but by the time that child enters school, they usually have learned that throwing themselves on the floor in a screaming fit is not an appropriate response to frustration or disappointment.

Parents teach emotional regulation skills to their children in several ways. Children observe and copy their parents’ emotions. Even infants in their first few months of life mimic their parents’ emotional expressions. Children really are little sponges who soak up everything they see and feel from their parents.

The way parents respond to their child’s emotions reinforces their behavior. Parents who respond by validating their child’s positive and negative emotions help the child learn that it’s alright to express all kinds of emotions and are more likely to learn healthy regulation skills. On the other hand, parents who use punitive reinforcement or become distressed at their child’s emotions reinforce poor coping skills.

Children need to know it is normal to feel all kinds of feelings. Praising healthy behavior while still acknowledging their child’s feelings is a hallmark of a parent helping a child to develop strong emotional regulation skills

As children reach adolescence, many struggle with emotional regulation and ultimately hone this important skill. Adolescents’ brain function for experiencing emotions tends to develop more quickly than their decision-making and planning skills, which often lag behind.

A safe, non-judgmental environment with open communication goes a long way towards helping adolescent children feel supported in making their own decisions and taking on new challenges.

The Importance of Emotional Regulation

As an adult, emotional regulation is essential to being productive at work or school and interacting with and having relationships with others. It is also important to our overall well-being and happiness.  In contrast, those who haven’t fully developed this essential skill are more likely to be unhappy, anxious, and chronically frustrated.

Adults with healthy emotional regulation skills are better at handling tough conversations with family, friends, or coworkers. They are also more likely to not let negative feelings keep them from reaching their goals. They are good at recognizing their own emotions and they are intuitive to other’s feelings, making them good communicators.

“Acting out,” which is often a lack of emotional regulation, can be triggered by intense feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, low self-esteem, or sadness.  That said, it’s essential to recognize that it isn’t the emotion itself that is to blame, it is the way you interpret and respond to your emotions that leads to healthy choices.

Here is an example of an unhealthy cycle of response.

First, a triggering event or situation occurs: A loved one or professional colleague says something you perceive to be critical.

Almost immediately, you have negative thoughts about what happened, “Why did they say that?” or “They don’t like me.”

Those thoughts elicit emotions. You feel sad, anxious, and disappointed, and depending on how hurtful the situation was, you might also experience physical reactions as well.

Finally, you make behavior choices in an effort to deal with these thoughts and emotions. These choices occur both in the moment and longer-term. For example, you might retaliate by being overly critical in return and lash out at them verbally. You might feel like you never want to speak to that person again. Later, you might replay the episode in your mind over and over and what you should have said, or maybe even try to distract from the situation by drinking, drugs, or some other addictive behavior.

It is very natural when faced with something unpleasant to want to avoid it completely and distance ourselves from the situation. While at times this may be an appropriate action to take, it can be detrimental to us when the action of avoiding a situation is combined with the avoidance of feelings as well.  Ignoring, cramming down, or minimizing our feelings, can actually make it harder (not easier) to make an appropriate behavioral choice.

Many negative actions people tend to take are often a result of avoiding feelings – drinking, substance abuse, overeating, gambling, or any excessive behavior (shopping, romantic addiction, work addiction) are effective ways to distract ourselves and feel better temporarily but are often damaging in the long-run. You don’t need to control your feelings and force yourself to feel something else – in fact, there is a wonderful saying, “What you try to control, may really control you.”

When we allow ourselves to feel sad, angry, hurt, frustrated, etc. – and recognize that feelings aren’t facts and they will pass – we are then in a healthier place to take appropriate action. No matter what we feel, we do have a choice on what action we take. Sometimes we go with the feelings and sometimes we recognize that our feelings were just fleeting emotions that we shouldn’t act upon. This is the essence of emotional regulation – feel what you feel, and then recognize that you can take healthy actions.

When we slip up and react with actions such as overeating, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. We will always have a chance to make a different choice next time we feel those feelings. This may all seem easier said than done – maybe sometimes we feel like we cannot help ourselves in reacting. The good news is that trained therapists have many techniques they can teach their clients to use. One such example borrows from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is about addressing the (often hidden) underlying assumptions that drive our feelings.

An example of one of these techniques is, upon hearing the criticism, allow yourself to feel whatever your reaction you have. Then, engage your mind to question the assumptions that you are automatically putting on the situation. Replace some of the automatic negative assumptions that may occur, such as, “well if she said that, then I must really be bad” or “they must really hate me,” with gentler, more realistic questions and statements: “Is this really about me or is this person having a hard time?” or “I’d like to understand their perspective, but I know this doesn’t define me as a person.” Often that simple reframing has a powerful effect on what happens next. Like any skill, it gets built up over time with a lot of repetition until one can reach a point where it becomes almost automatic.

It definitely takes time and practice but working on the thoughts and assumptions that underlie the decision we make when we are triggered can go a long way. There are many other techniques and some work better for some people than others.  We do have the power to change our unhealthy reactions, and by doing this, we can achieve positive interpersonal outcomes that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

We can also improve our overall health by keeping stress levels low and our outlook positive.

Lastly, other productive strategies for learning to reframe negative or triggering thoughts include talking with friends, physical activity, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, self-awareness exercises, getting adequate sleep, good time management, taking note of negative thoughts, and therapy.

Regulating emotions properly leads to better health overall and enjoyment of life. If you are struggling with your emotional reactions, an experienced therapist can help you learn how to manage your thoughts and change your reactions to more positive and healthy responses.

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