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Emotions are a normal part of everyday life. We feel frustrated when we’re stuck in traffic. We feel sad when we miss our loved ones. We can get angry when someone lets us down or does something to hurt us.
While we expect to feel these emotions regularly, some people start to experience emotions that are more volatile. They feel higher highs and lower lows, and these peaks and valleys begin to impact their lives. Individuals who experience intense emotions may find themselves calm one moment and then sad or angry the next.
While any of us can have times when our emotions spin out of control, for some people it happens regularly. Their rapidly changing emotions can cause them to do and say things they later regret. They may damage relationships or hurt their credibility with others.
There can be a number of reasons that someone loses control of their emotions. They may be genetically predisposed to these rapid changes. They may never have seen good emotional regulation modeled or learned the skills. They may lose control when they experience triggers for negative situations that happened in the past. There can also be physical changes that cause a person to lose control of their emotions, such as exhaustion or a drop in blood sugar.
No matter the reason for the emotional volatility, the good news is that we can learn better self-regulation. We can all benefit from learning strategies to control our emotions. Emotional regulation is the ability to better control our emotional state.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is taking any action that alters the intensity of an emotional experience. It doesn’t mean suppressing or avoiding emotions. It refers to the ability to effectively exert control over our emotions through a wide range of approaches. With emotional regulation skills, you can influence which emotions you have as well as how you express them.
Some people are better at regulating their emotions than others. They are high in emotional intelligence and are aware of both their internal experiences and the feelings of others. While it may seem like they're just "naturally calm," these people experience negative feelings too. They've just developed coping strategies that allow them to self-regulate difficult emotions.
The good news is that emotional self-regulation isn’t a static trait. Emotion regulation skills can be learned and improved over time. Learning how to manage negative experiences can benefit your mental and physical health.
Why is emotional regulation important?
As adults, we are expected to manage our emotions in ways that are socially acceptable and help us navigate our lives. When our emotions get the better of us, they can cause problems.
Many factors can impede emotional regulation. These include our beliefs about negative emotions or a lack of emotional regulation skills. Sometimes, stressful situations can evoke especially powerful emotions.
One of the ways that emotional volatility can hurt us includes the impact it can have on our relationships with others. For example, when we cannot properly moderate our anger, we are likely to say things that hurt those around us and cause them to pull away. We may regret the things we’ve said or have to spend time repairing relationships.
In addition to having a negative impact on our relationships, an inability to control our emotions can also hurt ourselves. Feeling overwhelming sadness can lower well-being and cause unnecessary suffering. Living with unmitigated fear can get in the way of our ability to take risks and have new life experiences.
There are a number of skills that can help us self-regulate our emotions.
1. Create space
Emotions happen fast. We don’t think “now I will be angry” — we are just suddenly clench-jawed and furious. So the number one skill in regulating difficult emotions, the gift we can give ourselves, is to pause. Take a breath. Slow down the moment between trigger and response.
2. Noticing what you feel
An equally important skill involves the ability to become aware of what you’re feeling. Dr. Judson Brewer, MD Ph.D. recommends practices for becoming more curious about your own physical reactions. Tune in to yourself and consider: in what parts of your body are you noticing sensations? Is your stomach upset? Is your heart racing? Do you feel tension in your neck or head?
Your physical symptoms can be clues to what you are experiencing emotionally. Inquiring into what is happening to you physically can also distract your focus and allow some of the intensity of the emotion to go away.
3. Naming what you feel
After noticing what you feel, the ability to name it can help you get control of what is happening. Ask yourself: what would you call the emotions you’re feeling? Is it anger, sadness, disappointment, or resentment? What else is it? One strong emotion that often hides beneath others is fear.
Many of us feel more than one emotion at a time, so don’t hesitate to identify multiple emotions you might be feeling. Then dig a little deeper. If you feel fear, what are you afraid of? If you feel anger, what are you angry about or toward? Being able to name your emotions will help you get one step closer to sharing your emotions with others.
4. Accepting the emotion
Emotions are a normal and natural part of how we respond to situations. Rather than beating yourself up for feeling angry or scared, recognize that your emotional reactions are valid. Try to practice self-compassion and give yourself grace. Recognize that experiencing emotions is a normal human reaction.
5. Practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness helps us “live in the moment” by paying attention to what is inside us. Use your senses to notice what is happening around you in nonjudgmental ways. These skills can help you stay calm and avoid engaging in negative thought patterns when you are in the midst of emotional pain.
There are a number of emotion regulation strategies that people can master to build their coping skills. It is important to consider which strategies are most useful and which ones to avoid.
There are two broad categories of emotional regulation. The first is reappraisal: changing how we think about something in order to change our response. The second is suppression, which is linked to more negative outcomes. Research indicates that ignoring our emotions is associated with dissatisfaction and poor well-being.
Let’s look at 7 strategies that can help to manage emotions in a healthy and helpful way.
1. Identify and reduce triggers
You shouldn’t try to avoid negative emotions — or be afraid of them. But you also don’t have to keep putting yourself in a situation that brings on unpleasant emotions. Start to look for patterns or factors that are present when you start to feel strong emotions. This requires some curiosity and honesty. Did something make you feel small? Strong emotions often spring up out of our deep-seated insecurities, especially the ones we hide. What is happening around you and what past experiences does it bring up for you?
When you identify these triggers, you can start to explore why they carry so much weight and whether you can reduce their importance. For example, a CEO might be embarrassed to admit that he gets angry when discussing numbers because he struggled in math class. Understanding this trigger might be enough. Or, the CEO might choose to preview the monthly charts in private to avoid the trigger of feeling like everyone else is waiting for him.
2. Tune into physical symptoms
Pay attention to how you are feeling, including whether you are feeling hungry or tired. These factors can exacerbate your emotions and cause you to interpret your emotions more strongly. If you can address the underlying issue (e.g. hunger, exhaustion), you can change your emotional response.
3. Consider the story you are telling yourself
In the absence of information, we fill in the blanks with details of our own. Perhaps you are feeling rejected after you haven’t heard from a family member; you believe it is because they no longer care about you.
Before you make these attributions, ask yourself: what other explanations might be possible? In the example of the family member, what else could be going on with them that would stop them from reaching out to you? Could they be busy or sick? Are they a well-intentioned person who often forgets to follow through on commitments?
BetterUp’s Shonna Waters recommends the “just like me” technique. Whatever motive or action you are assigning to the other person (there’s almost always another person involved), add “just like me” to the end. It is a way of reminding yourself that they are also an imperfect human being.
4. Engage in positive self-talk
When our emotions feel overwhelming, our self-talk can become negative: “I messed up again” or “everyone else is so awful.” If you treat yourself with empathy, you can replace some of this negative talk with positive comments. Try encouraging yourself by saying “I always try so hard” or “People are doing the best they can.” This shift can help mitigate the emotions we’re feeling. You can still be frustrated with a situation that isn’t working but no longer have to assign blame or generalize it beyond the situation.
5. Make a choice about how to respond
In most situations, we have a choice about how to respond. If you tend to respond to feelings of anger by lashing out at people, you likely notice the negative impact it is having on your relationships. You might also notice that it doesn’t feel good. Or, it feels good at the moment, but the consequences are painful.
Next time you feel anger or fear, recognize that you get to choose how you want to respond. That recognition is powerful. Rather than lashing out, can you try a different response? Is it possible for you to tell someone that you’re feeling angry rather than speaking harshly to them? Get curious about what will happen if you switch up your responses. How did you feel? How did the other person respond?
6. Look for positive emotions
Human beings naturally attribute more weight to negative emotions than positive ones. This is known as negativity bias. Negative emotions, like disgust, anger, and sadness tend to carry a lot of weight. Positive feelings, like contentment, interest, and gratitude are quieter. Making a habit of noticing these positive experiences can boost resilience and well-being.
7. Seek out a therapist
Managing our own emotions can be difficult. It requires a high degree of self-awareness. When we're having a hard time, our emotional self-regulation begins to suffer. Sometimes we need a partner like a therapist who can help us learn better self-regulation skills. Fortunately, there are a number of therapeutic solutions that can help us learn to better regulate our emotions.
What is emotional regulation disorder?
Emotional regulation disorder is a condition where someone has difficulty managing their feelings. This inability to adequately regulate emotions is referred to as dysregulation. Dysregulation is a poor ability to manage emotional responses or keep reactions within an acceptable range.
A person with emotional regulation disorder is more likely to experience dramatic changes in mood. These fluctuations in turn negatively impact the person’s actions.
Emotional regulation disorder can result in some of the following:
- Difficulty building and maintaining healthy relationships
- Self-destructive behavior
- Frequent meltdowns or temper tantrums
- Outbursts of emotions that are displaced onto someone who did not cause the harm
Emotional regulation disorder can also accompany other mental health issues. Disorders such as depression, stress, or borderline personality disorder often complicate emotional regulation.
What is DBT?
There are many therapeutic approaches that can help with emotional regulation disorder. These interventions tend to be practical in nature and can be quite successful.
One approach that can help with emotional dysregulation is dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that seeks to identify negative thinking patterns. Individuals work with a therapist to replace these patterns with positive behavioral changes.
DBT is a cognitive reappraisal technique. It includes practices such as thought replacement or situational role reversals. In situational role reversals, the person imagines a situation from a different perspective. This exercise can help them develop empathy and cognitive flexibility.
One of the long-term goals of dialectical behavior therapy is to improve distress tolerance. Distress tolerance is the ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions, sensations, and experiences. Emotional dysregulation often comes from a desire to “override” the undesirable feeling. Without awareness, people tend to resort to self-harm, substance abuse, and other behaviors to escape the feeling. Building distress tolerance provides a self-help toolkit. This usually includes self-soothing, distraction, and radical acceptance techniques. With practice, you can learn how to calm yourself down.
Negative emotions are part of our daily lives, and pretending that they don’t exist won’t make them go away. Rather than trying to avoid them, we should try to develop emotional intelligence and regulation skills. Building the ability to self-regulate is crucial to leadership, communication, and relationships.