Emotional regulation is a skill. You can learn strategies to regulate your emotions and live a more emotionally balanced life. This article outlines five emotion regulation strategies that you can use in challenging situations to regain emotional control.
1. The Power of Mindfulness
The journey to emotional regulation begins with mindfulness. This emotional regulation skill invites us to become fully aware of our present experiences, observing our emotions without judgment or prejudice.
Mindfulness is about being here now. We all tend to talk to ourselves and narrate our lives but we don’t actually listen. It is all very habitual and unconscious.
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Mindfulness invites us to notice our emotions. We embrace our emotional experience as a whole. We listen to words, feelings, sensations and images associated with our emotions. We listen in on these emotional cues as an impartial observer and with curiosity.
After some emotional exploration, you should have a clear understanding of the emotions you are feeling, the sensations or images are associated with them, the words (or stories) you tell yourself and the cause you have identified for you feeling this way.
This practice leads to emotional acceptance, a crucial step towards emotional regulation. As you develop tolerance for experiencing negative emotions without judgment, your ability to be at peace with unwanted emotions also increases.
An important part of mindfulness is deep breathing, which slows down the stress response and encourages the parasympathetic nervous system to restore balance.
Mindfulness is a skill that you cultivate by practicing it daily. Just 15 minutes a day offers innumerable benefits not only for your emotional life but also for your nervous system, mental health and physical health.
Mindfulness is a potent self-regulation skill that you can use in everyday life.
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.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) includes mindfulness and takes it a step further, with the concept of radical acceptance. This practice encourages acceptance of situations beyond our control, allowing for closure and emotional peace.
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2. Attention-Shifting Strategies
Attention-shifting strategies are another type of emotional regulation techniques. By turning our attention away from what is bothering us, we moderate the impact of our emotions.
Shifting attention is a good way to deal with something unpleasant by involving yourself in an activity that evokes positive feelings.
What do you do within 30 seconds of waiting in line?
…. If you’re 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 staring at our phones have made it very easy for us to distract ourselves when our emotions run high. There is no shortage of entertainment (from Netflix to drugs) to distract us from how we’re feeling.
Shifting attention is most effective on the little things. If you are dealing with a very stressful situation or feeling difficult emotions, attention-shifting won’t work as well.
Attention shifting is not an effective strategy particularly because we all tend to overdo it to the point of denying our feelings. When attention-shifting turns to suppression of intense emotions, we’ve taken this strategy too far.
When we deny how we feel, the emotions get stuck in our body and come back to haunt us later on, often with greater intensity.
The way out of strong emotions is through.
Attention-shifting is a an emotional regulation skill that works best to deal with minor annoyances. The relief it can provide is usually brief.
3. Forward-Looking Techniques for Emotional Regulation
Forward looking strategies consists of anticipating how you’ll feel in a particular situation and creating a plan to soften the emotional impact. If we can predict which situations will cause emotional triggers, we can take measures to prevent or lessen their effects.
Avoidance is often how we use forward-looking strategies. If someone angers you, avoid them. If a friend stresses you out, stay away.
Avoidance is a good strategy for those with whom we don’t have a long term relationship. If a waiter is particularly rude, you can certainly avoid going back to eat there.
However, avoidance doesn’t work with people with whom you have a long term relationship. 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, 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’re dreading a big test, scheduling a treat right after might help you get through it.
Planning to do something you really enjoy right after doing something unpleasant is very effective for regulating negative emotions.
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4. Positive Self Talk (Reframing)
Positive self-talk (reframing or cognitive reappraisal) is necessary if only to counterbalance the mostly negative monologues that likely goes on inside your mind every day.
Humans have a natural tendency towards negative self-talk. We may hear a small voice inside our head saying 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, this 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, respond the negative voice. Positive self-talk is an important tool to use as part of a robust emotional self-regulation strategy.
What information is the voice missing? Chances are that there’s a lot that 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 self-compassionate. Research suggests that using your own first name when talking to yourself is very 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 contagious. We are constantly affecting each other. When we feel triggered by others, rather than reacting, get curious about what they are going through.
Instead of sinking into a feeling of irritation, we can pause and ponder why this person is be acting the way that they do.
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 and optimize for positive emotions. Situations are multi-faceted. By reframing, we neutralize emotional triggers and practice emotional self-regulation.
Reframing is so powerful that simply reframing anxiety into excitement has been shown to improve public-speaking and negotiating skills.
Reframing works because the part of the 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 triggered.
Reframing neutralizes negative emotions and creates space for the experience of positive emotions.
5. Calling Upon our Best Self
Calling upon our best self in moments of emotional dysregulation is an effective emotional regulation skill. It can help you avoid emotional outbursts by tapping into the best version of yourself.
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 emotionally triggered, pausing and picturing your best self responding with dignity and compassion can be quite effective.
Looking to your best self when triggered is a way to live up to your values and bridge the gap between how you behave and how you want to behave.
In summary, developing and practicing emotional regulation skills is critical to managing emotional dysregulation and improving mental health. These techniques can be cultivated with daily practice and perhaps the guidance of a mental health professional. They provide the ability to respond to emotional triggers in a healthier and more balanced way.
By integrating mindfulness, attention-shifting, forward-looking strategies, positive self-talk, and calling upon our best self, we can navigate life’s challenges with greater calm and distress tolerance.
Ready to boost your emotional regulation skills? Connect with one of our therapists today and begin your journey to greater emotional well-being and personal growth. Start your journey now by calling us at 212-960-8626 or by filling out our contact form. Your first step towards a calmer and more centered life awaits you.