For most, this year has been a roller coaster ride. And we’re bound to see our emotional wellbeing impacted by it. As such, it’s critical that we are paying attention to and taking care of our emotional health. Emotion regulation is the ability to influence our own emotional experiences, and emotion regulation skills help keep our emotional systems healthy and functioning.
Emotion regulation has 3 main goals
To be clear, emotion regulation is not ‘control’ over our emotions, nor is it an attempt to only experience positive emotions. Negative emotions are important and often serve a function. Rather, this is the idea that we have some influence over how overwhelming emotions are and what we do in response to emotions that arise. What we do with these initial emotions will affect the ongoing intensity of the emotion. For example, I might experience a bout of sadness after watching the news. And what I do in response to this initial sadness will have an impact on how I continue to experience it. If I bury myself in more news stories, if I become judgmental about myself or the world around me, or if I fight with the sadness in an attempt to get rid of it, I’m likely to see this sadness intensify or even trigger fear, anger or despair. However, if I name that I feel sad, allow it to be there, and engage in activities that are meaningful to me, that sadness is much less likely to intensify or trigger a cascade of other emotions.
Emotion regulation is caring for ourselves and our needs such that we’re less reactive and less vulnerable to extreme highs and lows. It is responding to our emotions in a mindful and intentional way. In doing so, we’re likely to experience more stability in our emotional states. So, how do we do it?
Pause and Identify: Pause when you are noticing emotion arising and name what emotion has come up. Be as specific as you can. Rather than saying ‘I feel bad’, try something more like ‘I’m incredibly angry and frustrated’ or ‘I feel sad and dejected’. Set check-in times to take your ‘emotional temperature’ throughout your day or week.
Validate Regardless: Your emotion comes from somewhere. There is a reason why it has shown up. Though it may not yet be apparent what the reason or source is, it’s there. Statements like ‘it makes sense that I’m feeling this way’ or ‘my feelings are valid’ can help with managing the intensity of the emotion.
Leave Judgments Behind (or, at least, be mindful of them): There are few ways to elevate our emotions more quickly than making judgments. Think of judgments as ‘Should/n’t Statements’ or labeling something as Good/Bad. Your mind is bound to do this as judgments are meant to be helpful shortcuts. But it’s important to notice and name when the mind has made a judgment, rather than treating them as facts. Try replacing the judgment with more descriptive statements.
Separate Facts from Assumptions: It can actually be quite difficult to separate fact from assumption in the heat of the moment. Identifying the objective facts of what has happened can help with managing the intensity of emotion. However, be careful not to use this tool as an invalidation of your experience.
Focus On What You Can Control: Most of us have a tendency to try and fix or solve the world around us in order to feel better. Yet, it rarely works and often backfires. Focusing on what is in our control helps us to let go of what we cannot control and empowers us to take helpful action towards what matters most to us.
Take Care of Your Needs: Your ability to care for others is dependent upon your own needs being met. Without that, your ability to show up for, serve, love and care for those around you will be hindered. Furthermore, without your needs being met you are much more vulnerable to emotional overwhelm. As they say on flights, you must put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those around you. At the very minimum, prioritize basic health: move your body/exercise, get enough sleep, eat regularly, drink plenty of water. Without these, we are much more vulnerable to intense emotion and instability.
Set Boundaries/Say No: Boundaries help set the stage for healthy and loving relationships. Without them, relationships can become depleting instead of fulfilling and supportive. Setting boundaries set the stage for you to get more of your own needs met, and allows you to conserve resources.
Acknowledge Every Accomplishment: Feeling accomplished plays an important role in our moods as well as our resilience against feeling stuck or lost in our emotions. We have a tendency to disregard the small things: “Well showering doesn’t count, that’s just what I’m supposed to do!” This is unfair to you. Count every small thing you do as a worthwhile accomplishment.
Find Time for Enjoyment: This one is sometimes more easily said than done, but start simple. Notice the comfort of the bed when you crawl into it at night. Step outside and enjoy the warmth of the sun on your face. Dance to your favorite song. Remember to stay with it. Notice if your mind wanders away or how quickly it jumps to the next task.
Trust Yourself: Much of our difficulty with emotion regulation is associated with worry. Worry drags us into the future and asks us to plan for every possible negative outcome in advance. Instead, shift to naming broad skills that you have (e.g., saying no, asking for help, compromising, seeking resources, problem-solving) and can employ if a given situation comes up, and trust yourself to be able to handle it at that time.
Last but certainly not least, going to therapy is a great way to build long term emotion regulation. Meeting with a therapist can help with both troubleshooting the above skills, as well as identifying life long patterns of vulnerability that contribute to difficulty with living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Amanda Seavey, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness, offering psychotherapy and psychological assessment to adults, couples and groups in Raleigh, NC. She has extensive training in providing treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia, interpersonal difficulties, trauma and substance use. Trained by some of the top researchers and clinicians in the field, her work has focused on treatments that increase psychological flexibility and reduce emotional suffering. One of Dr. Seavey’s primary specialties is in the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders.
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