Emotional Regulation: A Closer Look
By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW
Our lives in Chicago can be busy, stressful and frustrating at times. The world can move at a fast pace and present us with challenges. Sometimes we might find ourselves short-fused and we may respond or react in ways that are impulsive and regrettable.
When people feel strong emotions, such as anger, frustration, or anxiety, they experience physical and mental responses. In some cases, we can become so flooded with emotion that our body increases the production of stress hormones, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and breathing rate. Unlike children, adults are expected to be able to manage their emotions, especially anxiety and anger, in a socially acceptable way.
But anger, resentment and disappointment can be some of the hardest emotions to control. If we lack the ability to self-regulate our emotions, we may overreact to situations; be quick to react; have emotional outbursts; experience negative emotions; suffer for lengthy periods of time; say or do things that can negatively affect relationships; and be hurtful to self and others.
To keep it real, emotional self-regulation is one of the most frequent topics that come up in our Chicago dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) sessions. Folks just want to figure out how to place a governor on what they are expressing.
Self-Regulation of Emotions
Most people actually do have the ability to choose and control their emotions and attitudes. Emotional self-regulation is the ability to control one’s behavior, emotions, words, and thoughts. It is the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses, think before acting, and rebound better from disappointments. Self-regulating your emotional state can stop you from saying or doing things that might hurt others or yourself.
It also helps you handle disappointment and react rationally to changes that are out of your control. It may involve behaviors such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, temporarily hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.
Emotional self-regulation doesn’t get rid of anger, sadness, or disappointment, rather it provides a framework for dealing with those emotions. In this way, it supports emotional well-being, calmness, and serenity.
Emotional self-regulation is also an important part of empathy. Regulating your feelings and reactions gives you time to listen and take other people’s feelings into account and to calmly resolve conflict in a rational manner.
It can also stop you from making things worse by reacting recklessly or impulsively to situations you can’t control. In its most basic form, self-regulation allows us to be more resilient and bounce back from disappointment while also staying calm under pressure.
People deal with emotions in a variety of ways. Some, such as substance misuse, overwork, and angry outbursts, are unhealthy. Avoidance, distraction, suppression, and worrying are also unhealth ways to deal. Emotional suppression involves a person keeping their emotions to themselves and not dealing with or expressing them.
This allows emotions to fester and grow. It doesn’t alter your emotional state, it merely stops you from dealing with or expressing how you feel. This can be helpful for the de-escalation of potentially challenging situations. However, eventually, you will react, most likely in a passive aggressive way. Keeping emotions in, while still feeling their impact inwardly, can lead to more pain in the long term.
Health Emotional Self-Regulation
There are also healthier self-regulation techniques such as mindfulness which is focusing your attention on the now, rather than on the past or future. It is a gentle strategy that enables your brain to let go of worry, guilt, and anxiety.
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from purposefully and non-judgmentally paying attention, in the present moment, to one’s thoughts and feelings and recognizing and accepting them. Engaging in focused breathing and gratitude, can enable us to put some space between ourselves and our reactions, leading to better focus and feelings of calmness and relaxation.
Cognitive reappraisal, also known as cognitive reevaluation or reframing, is the ability to change the way you think about and react to a potentially triggering situation. It involves reinterpreting a situation in order to change the emotional response to it. It can be a type of reframing which involves changing how one thinks about something that prompted an emotion in order to change one’s response and its emotional impact.
Emotional self-regulation is the learned skill that becomes easier with age. But biology also plays a role in this maturation process. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls regulatory behaviors like impulse control, reactivity, and flexibility, develops primarily during adolescence and doesn’t fully mature until one’s early to mid-20s. It’s a topic that comes up often as part of Chicago quarter life crisis counseling!
In a healthy environment, children develop emotional self-regulation under the guidance of caregivers and peers. Learning how to self-regulate is an important skill that children learn for emotional maturity and social connections. A child who does not feel safe and secure, or who is unsure whether their needs will be met, may have trouble self-soothing and self-regulating.
They may grow to be a teen or adult that then struggles with self-regulation, either because this ability was not developed during childhood, or because of a lack of strategies for managing difficult feelings. When left unchecked, over time this could lead to more serious issues such as mental health disorders and risky behaviors such as substance use. It is dangerous to think that children will just grow out of the tantrum phase.
Since self-regulation involves taking a pause between a feeling and an action and taking the time to think things through, make a plan, wait patiently, children often struggle with these behaviors, and adults may as well.
An adult with poor self-regulation skills may lack self-confidence and self-esteem and have trouble tolerating stress and frustration. Often, this might result in anger or anxiety. Emotional maturity is the ability to face emotional, social, and cognitive threats in the environment with patience and thoughtfulness.
Certain daily practices can help a person stay in control of their emotions. Should you take part in therapy, here is what you may learn to do better:
- Staying connected: Talk to friends and supports.
- Get enough sleep: It’s easier to “fly off the handle” when you’re exhausted. Reducing insomnia by practicing good sleep hygiene can help.
- Eat well: You may have heard the expression “hangry” (hungry + angry). Being hungry can make you irritable and quicker to anger. Eating nutritious food at regular intervals can help you avoid hunger.
- Regular exercise: Physical activity has many benefits, including that it can help reduce anxiety and create focus. This may help you cope more effectively with stressful situations.
- Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness through meditation can help increase coping skills and have other positive effects on your health.
- Practice pausing: If confronted with something upsetting, take several deep breaths before you automatically respond. This can help de-escalate situations that could become damaging or dangerous. Let go of the desire to win every encounter or argument.
- Monitor your body: Pay attention to your body’s reactions. For example, a rapidly increasing heart rate may be a sign that you are entering a state of stress or even rage.
- Acknowledge your emotions: Journaling involves writing down your thoughts and feelings and reflecting on them so as to understand them more clearly and just get them out of your body.
- Therapy: If you’re having trouble coping or are dealing with feelings such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness, consider talking with a therapist.
Everyone has a choice in how to react to situations. While you may feel like life has dealt you a bad hand, it’s not the hand you are dealt, but how you react to it that matters most. In every situation you have options ranging from avoidance to acceptance. In addition, while we can’t change the past, we can change our relationship to the past. This is why life changes focused therapy can help.
If you pay attention to the increases in emotional response, consider the consequences of any response, and choose responses that move toward a positive outcome or goal, despite possibly feeling negative emotions, you are choosing emotional self-regulation.
Emotional dysregulation can lead to harmful behaviors such as drug or alcohol misuse. It can also reduce your ability to have close, meaningful relationships. If you’re having trouble dealing with your emotions or meeting short and long-term goals, talking with a therapist or other type of mental health provider may be beneficial.