Our emotions are volatile. They fluctuate throughout the day and sometimes feel overwhelming. Intense emotions such as anxiety, anger and fear can knock us off our course and have us react in disproportionate ways. Emotional regulation is a skill. You can learn strategies to regulate your emotions and live a more emotionally balanced life.
The first emotional regulation skill is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a special state of being. It is noticing one’s own present experience. We all tend to speak to ourselves and narrate our lives but we don’t actually listen. It is all very habitual and unconscious.
In this state of being, we notice our emotions. We listen to the words, the sensations and the images associated with our feelings. We listen in on these emotional cues as an impartial observer and with curiosity.
After some emotional exploration, you should have a good understanding of what emotions you are feeling, what sensations or images are associated with them, the words (or story) you tell yourself and the cause you have identified for you feeling this way.
An essential part of mindfulness is mindful breathing. Slowing down our breath hits the brake of the stress response by decreasing our heart rate and resetting the autonomic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Mindfulness is a skill that you sharpen by practicing it daily. Just 15 minutes a day yields innumerable benefits not just to your emotional life but also to your nervous system, mental health and physical health.
By practicing mindfulness daily, you’ll be prepared when you feel triggered into intense emotions. Much relief and insight can be obtained by practicing mindfulness.
2. Attention-Shifting Strategies
By diverting our attention away from what’s bothering us, we moderate the impact of our emotions. This is an attention-shifting strategy that helps regulate our emotions.
What do you do within 30 seconds of waiting in line?
…. If you are like most people, you probably look at your phone. That’s using distraction to shift away from feeling bored.
In our modern world, we’ve all become very good at attention shifting. The unlimited entertainment and dopamine hit we get from looking at our phones have made it very easy for us to distract ourselves when our emotions are stirred up. There is no shortage of entertainment (from Netflix to drugs) to distract us from how we feel.
Attention shifting is not an effective strategy though, especially because we all tend to overdo it to the point where we deny our emotions. When we deny how we feel, the emotions get stuck in the body and come back to haunt us later on, usually with greater intensity.
The way out of strong emotions is through – as described in emotional skill #1 Mindfulness.
Attention shifting is a strategy to temper our emotions. It does work but usually provides temporary relief at best.
3. Forward-Looking Strategies
Forward looking strategies entails anticipating how you’ll feel in a specific situation and devising a plan to alter the emotional impact. If we can predict which situations will provoke an emotional reaction, we can take measures to prevent or lessen their impact.
Avoidance is usually the way we use forward-looking strategies. If a person angers you, avoid him. If a friend stresses you out, stay away.
Avoidance is a good strategy for those with whom we don’t have long term relationships with. If a waiter is particularly rude, you can certainly avoid going back to eat there.
However, avoidance does not work well with those you have long term relationships with. If you feel intense emotions, such as being furious, belittled or anxious, around your family members or roommate, avoidance is not going to be an effective emotional regulation strategy. Avoidance will only serve to intensify your feelings, rendering this strategy ineffectual.
Addressing the underlying issue upfront, from a calm place after some mindful reflection (see emotional skill #1), with your problem-solving hat on, is probably the best strategy.
Another way of using forward-looking skills for emotional regulation is to use pleasure as a reward for overcoming incoming difficult situations. If you are dreading a big test, scheduling a treat right after might help get through it.
Planning to do something you really enjoy right after doing something unpleasant is highly effective for regulating negative emotions.
4. Positive Self Talk (Reframing)
Positive self-talk (or reframing) is necessary if only to counterbalance the mostly negative self-talk that likely goes on inside your mind every day.
Humans have a negative bias toward negative self-talk. We can hear a little voice inside our head say things like: “You’ve messed up again!” “You’re stupid, a loser, a fake.” “You can’t do anything right.” You’re not smart enough, strong enough, pretty enough, _____ enough.”
If we listen to it, that voice can bring us down. But we don’t have to let it hold us back. When the voice tells you something that brings you down, answer the negative voice.
What information is the voice missing? Chances are that there are plenty of things the self-critical voice didn’t consider. Poke holes in the criticizer’s judgment. Weaken it using counter-arguments.
Another way to use positive self-talk is to be empathetic toward yourself. Research suggests that using your own first name when talking to yourself is most efficient to decrease feelings of distress.
When feeling sad saying to yourself “Jack, what happened was really hard for you. It IS sad ” might actually help you feel better and emotionally regulate strong emotions.
Emotions are infectious. We are constantly affecting each other. When we feel triggered by others, instead of reacting, we can get curious about what they are going through.
Instead of sinking into a feeling of irritation, we could pause and consider why this person might be acting this way. You can turn feelings of irritation into curiosity and compassion. That’s another way of reframing.
Reframing is a powerful way to flip negative feelings around. Situations are multi-faceted. By not enacting our initial emotion but pausing and reframing instead, we neutralize an emotional overreaction and connect with others instead.
Reframing is so powerful that simply reframing anxiety as excitement has been shown to improve public-speaking and negotiating skills.
Reframing works because the part of our brain that helps us modulate emotional response (the lateral temporal cortical) gets activated when we pause and reframe a situation, at the expense of the amygdala where strong emotions get activated.
5. Calling Upon our Best Self
Calling upon our best self in moments of intense emotions can be compelling to emotionally regulate and avoid overreacting.
Asking yourself “What would my best self do?” in moments of agitation can be effective at aligning our emotions with our values.
To take advantage of this strategy, you need to ascertain who is your best self. Ask yourself what values do I identify with? What adjectives come to mind? Who are my role models and how do they conduct themselves?
When triggered, taking a step back and visualizing your best self responding to the situation in the dignified, intelligent, and/or compassionate way you imagine your best self would behave can be quite effective.
Looking to your best self when triggered is a way to live up to your values and close the gap between how you behave and how you wished you’d behave.