What is emotional regulation?
“Emotional regulation” describes a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. It can sometimes be called self-regulation as it refers to the way we deal with our emotions as a response to life events.
The ability to regulate our emotions is a protective factor against anxiety and depression, as it helps to better manage the life´s challenges and difficult situations that we face, having coping strategies to deal with stress and be more resilient in our day to day.
Better resources to deal with our emotions influence the intensity of our emotions, how long they last, how we express them and our ability to calm ourselves after experiencing these intense emotions.
Emotional regulation is a skill we learn. Normally, as children we learn how to regulate our emotions by observing our parents or other adults effectively manage their emotions. We also learn when the adults around us assist us in identifying, accepting, making sense of our emotions, and learning healthy ways of expressing them.
Why emotional regulation is important
Our emotions are our most valuable wealth. Some people spend their lives – and their energy – trying to avoid certain emotions, specifically ones that are deemed as “negative” such as: anxiety, anger, sadness, or fear. However, we should honor every single emotion because they are our guide in life.
· They point out that something is going wrong and it needs our attention to solve it. For instance: you feel sad in your marriage; that sadness and emptiness may indicate that your relationship needs attention, love and affection or may signify that it needs to end.
· Emotions are important motivators of future behavior. You need to be in contact with your feelings to know what you like and what you dislike, so you can make choices based on your needs, and needs provide a direction towards action. Therefore, emotions make decision making and problem solving easier.
· Emotions prepare our bodies for immediate action; fear prepares our body to react to something we consider as dangerous.
· Our emotions protect us, we use anger to set boundaries with other people, to establish limits that protect ourselves and our wellbeing.
· Emotions help us relate to others, when we feel sad and need some support or just a hug.
· Emotions have a large impact on our learning, memory, attention, and reasoning.
· Emotions give meaning to our life story and our sense of self.
Emotional regulation is about finding balance in being in touch with our emotional world and expressing it. Underregulated people tend to be more impulsive, and their actions tend to be less adaptative. On the other side, an overregulated person would probably show some signs of repression, frustration, anger, or depression as they may not be properly accessing or blocking significant aspects of their emotions.
What causes poor emotional regulation?
The experience of an emotion is not what leads to difficulties, it is our interpretation of the emotion that may lead to distress. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we assume that emotions, thoughts and behaviors are all linked and may try to identify “Vicious Cycles” that are detrimental to the individual. Vicious cycles tend to be patterns of behaviors that reinforce negative thoughts, for example an individual may avoid feeling certain emotions as they fear they won’t be able to cope with them. The avoidance of the feeling reinforces the thought that the person can not cope which creates a vicious cycle.
Vicious cycles can be even more intense when their triggers are linked to earlier negative experiences, like childhood abuse, child neglect, traumatic brain injury or past trauma.
Poor emotional regulation can be explained by biological predispositions for emotional reactivity, or it can be affected by a poor environment, unhealthy role models, unstable parents, traumatic experiences in school, negative core believes, lack of support to deal with emotions and lack of social skills.
Emotional regulation therapy
Emotional regulation therapy (ERT) is a present focused psychotherapy that was born out of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and integrates components of cognitive, acceptance and mindfulness-based approaches. ERT emphasizes awareness of emotions which develops through psychoeducation about the function of our emotions, mindfulness exercises to reduce emotional avoidance and increase tolerance of their circumstances and exposure and behavioral activation techniques.
The treatment focuses on teaching these skills needed to manage emotions in a healthy way through exposure and role plays. Emotional regulation techniques taught include identifying emotions as they occur, learning how to tolerate emotions, learning how to change emotions, and learning how to express and release emotions.
To break the vicious cycle mentioned before, we need to understand how the relationship between our thoughts, emotions and behaviors works. We can ask ourselves these questions:
• What specific thoughts trigger the most negative emotions for us?
• Which emotions are hardest for you to tolerate?
• Which emotions are easiest for you to tolerate?
• What behaviors do you tend to use to calm down the feelings?
• How well do these behaviors work in the short and long term? Do I want to use these behaviors?
• What are the underlying beliefs about myself, others, or life in general that tend to most strongly perpetuate the negative cycles?
• Conversely, what thoughts and beliefs do I have that assist me most in generating positive feelings?
Emotional Regulation Skills
Outlined below are skills that can aid emotional regulation. Stop and observe your emotions.
Taking a solution focused approach. Talking about your emotions with friends and family. Exercising.
Attention – shifting strategies to temper our emotions and provide a temporary relief so we can process our emotions better.
Assertiveness skills for communicating your feelings in a way that respects everyone involved.
Breathing techniques, slowing down our breath hits the brake on the stress response. Instead of sinking into a negative feeling, we could pause and consider the situation from another perspective.
Mindfulness helps to notice our emotions, the sensations associated with our feelings and enough space between the stimulus and our emotional reaction, allowing ourselves to make a more conscious decision.
Reframing thoughts to reduce our negative self-talk and neutralize an emotional overreaction.
Writing a journal.
Taking care of ourselves, noticing when we need a break and being in touch with our needs.
Emotional regulation related problems can be helped by talking therapy.