What is emotional regulation?
We feel and experience emotions – both positive and negative – every day. The terms “emotion regulation” and “emotional self-regulation” describe the same cognitive phenomenon. Roughly speaking, emotional regulation is our awareness and understanding of the emotions we experience and our subsequent ability to process and control our related thoughts and responses to them. Emotional regulation is connected to impulse control since one is acting on a feeling such as craving. Toddlers have no emotional regulation skills. Their emotions can swing like a pendulum.
Emotional regulation is usually taught by a parent starting from infancy. The parent soothes their child, talks about feelings, and explains that their feelings do not have to overpower them and one shouldn’t be afraid of them. In addition, when caregivers provide a stable and reliable environment early on – the little person takes on that stability and makes it part of own personality.
Emotional self-regulation defined
A person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience, in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.
What is emotional dysregulation?
As you might guess, “emotion dysregulation” is the term used to describe an inability to adopt healthy strategies to diffuse or moderate one’s experience of negative emotions. During periods of emotional dysregulation, people’s day-to-day behaviours and relationships are negatively impacted by their emotions. Emotional dysregulation can present itself in many ways:
- Mood swings
- Restlessness (ADHD)
- Extreme and rapidly changing emotions
- Disproportional to situation reactions
- Self-detrimental and risky behaviour (shopping, sexual encounters, overworking, betting, overeating and many other behaviours that can be recognised by the negative effect it has on wellbeing or goals)
- Sleep difficulties
The importance of emotional regulation
Nearly all people use unhealthy emotion regulation strategies sometimes, for example, alcohol. But when individuals do so regularly, they begin to experience what feels like overwhelming, intense negative emotions and are much more likely to rely on unhealthy strategies such as substance abuse or self-harm.
When do emotions become overwhelming? It’s really important to note that the experience of an emotion per se is not what leads to difficulties. It’s the interpretation of this emotion that tends to magnify the feelings and build a sense of not being able to tolerate them. This is known as a “vicious emotional cycle.”
The emotional regulation system
Emotions, thoughts, and behavior are all linked together in a cycle. Your situation and physical reaction to your environment determine your thoughts and your thoughts in turn, determine your feelings or emotions and behaviours. This cycle can become vicious or follow a typical, harmful, knee-jerk pattern over time. For example, landing at overly negative or irrational (and upsetting) conclusions.
Unless something is done to change the cycle, continued avoidance of the feelings associated with a particular environment or event may follow. This reinforces or supports one’s initial interpretation of the event and can then lead to additional negative thoughts and feelings about it such as fear or anger. During phases of emotional dysregulation, a small event can escalate into something huge which triggers negative reactions or behaviours. This cycle can be even more intense when the events that occur are more serious or somehow tie into earlier negative experiences, such as trauma or abuse.
Examples of healthy common emotion regulation strategies
- Talking with friends
- Writing in a journal
- Monitoring your emotions: paying attention to negative thoughts that occur before or after strong emotions, noticing when you need a break – and taking it
- Taking care of self when physically ill
- Obtaining adequate sleep
Examples of unhealthy common emotion regulation strategies
- Consumption of alcohol or other substances (in excess)
- Avoidance or withdrawal from difficult situations
- Physical or verbal aggression
Therapy for emotional regulation – How to teach emotional regulation
Self-regulation is a key element of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence involves knowing your emotions, motivating yourself, managing relationships, and recognising, and understanding the emotions of those around you. Here are five steps you can follow to regulate your emotions.
The first step in emotional regulation is recognising and acknowledging your feelings. Learning to put feelings into words is crucial, as opposed to acting out these feelings. Identify the specific emotions you and others feel. Identifying how we feel and the thoughts that lead us to these emotions form the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy.
Get in touch with your subconscious self
Our thoughts and emotions aren’t reactions to only current situations. Therefore for some people, it’s important to delve deeper and explore their thinking in relation to past as well as current events and events they may not think are affecting them (or that they are avoiding). The primary focus of psychoanalytic therapy is to reveal the unconscious content of your psyche in an effort to alleviate emotional dysregulation.
Learn new skills
Your therapist will teach you certain skills to help manage and communicate stress, such as self-soothing, stress management, and assertiveness.
Learn how to adapt
When you are showing difficulty with adapting to life changes, your ability to self-regulate is inhibited. It is important that you cope well with change and adapt your behavior to different situations easily. People who resist change often experience unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety that can lead to poor physical and mental health. Your therapist will encourage you to be adaptable and share with you ways to achieve this.
Self-awareness lies at the center of Existential Therapy. Rather than delve into the past, the existential approach looks at the here and now, exploring the human condition as a whole and what it means for you as an individual. This approach to psychotherapy differs from the others mentioned on this page in that it focuses more on acknowledging and accepting our way of thinking and how we experience life rather than adopting strategies to change them.
A key ingredient of self-regulation is self-awareness and a large part of this is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Through therapy, you will identify what makes you angry, stressed, or simply what inspires general feelings of negativity. Some people find it beneficial to make a list of all their personal “triggers” (events that lead to negative spirals in thoughts and emotions) and the regrettable responses that these lead to.
The next step in therapy for emotional dysregulation is to identify the behaviors or actions that were not useful and replace them with positive alternatives. You will practice strategies for self-awareness with your therapist. We encourage people to pencil in a break or two throughout the day to collect his or her thoughts and relax.