Emotional Regulation

Self-regulation, or the ability to identify and respond appropriately to internal needs, is being increasingly recognized as an important skill. It appears Americans may be getting worse at it. Our lives are filled with endless distractions leaving us with little time or motivation to pause and look inward. Researchers speculate we are over-regulating our children’s lives and not letting them engage in the free, imaginative play that is essential to developing this essential life skill.

When a person with self-regulation problems encounters a stressor, they neither have the awareness to notice it nor the skills necessary to effectively respond to it. Self-regulation deficiencies can manifest in impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, low frustration tolerance, trouble initiating or stopping behavior, difficulty transitioning, sleep and eating problems, or aggression. Individuals may rely on unhealthy coping methods like abusing substances, avoidance, and self-harming behavior in an effort to regulate themselves. It is easy to see why self-regulation problems can have devastating effects on social, academic and work functioning.

In some individuals, problems with self-regulation result from deficient learning. In others it is due to problems with brain functioning related to heredity, congenital problems, or brain injury. Learning to regulate our emotions and behavior takes practice and some of us are better at it than others. If you suspect you have problems with self-regulation that are causing severe distress or impairing your functioning, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional about how you can make a change.

Emotional Regulation

One of the body’s responses we must learn to regulate is emotions. We experience emotions as personal, subjective, unpredictable, and sometimes even illogical and confusing. Biologically speaking though, an emotion is nothing more than a response to one’s interpretation of stimuli involving physiological processes such as changes in pulse rate, respiration, and body temperature.

Though our emotions are biologically based, they are not necessarily reality based. Just because we feel a certain way, doesn’t make it true. Feelings are not facts. Despite all of this, our emotions seem very real to us and they color our perception of the world. Our emotions dictate our moods and shape our behavior.

If emotions were facts, everyone would feel the same in a given situation. But we know this is not true because emotional responses vary from individual to individual and from culture to culture. Emotions are impacted by our thoughts and beliefs about the world which arise from our heredity, experiences, learning, and environment.

There is wide array of emotions human beings can experience, but Robert Plutchik (1980) developed a theory showing eight primary human emotions that all other human emotions come from:

  • Joy
  • Acceptance
  • Fear
  • Submission
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation

Thoughts Lead to Feelings

How can it be that two people in the same situation can experience entirely different emotions? Consider this example of how our thoughts, and not necessarily facts, determine our feelings.

Situation: You see someone sitting at a table crying.
Thought: You think they must be sad.
Emotion: You feel concern and sympathy.

Then suppose you look down at the table and see the person is cutting an onion. Would your thoughts and emotions change? As you can see, it was the thought that dictated the initial emotion and not necessarily the reality of the situation.

This example shows that it is possible to regulate your emotions by changing the way you look at a situation. Just like a diamond, every situation has multiple facets. Our feelings about a situation can change depending upon the angle we choose to view it from.

Behavior Leads to Feelings

The way you behave can influence the way you feel. An example of this is exercise. When we engage in exercise, we often feel better afterwards, even when our situation hasn’t changed. Meditation and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can also change our emotions. This is partially due to the neurological and physiological changes that occur when we engage in these behaviors over time. It is also related to the meaning we make of these behaviors. Doing something you perceive as good or healthy can make you feel better about yourself and your situation.

Another example is the way facial expressions are related to emotions. All over the world, human beings use the same facial muscles when expressing certain emotions. Studies have shown that muscular feedback from a facial expression results in the experience of the emotion it expresses. Give it a try.

Yet another example is related to studies investigating “liking”. Researchers found they could increase liking by having individuals participate in activities together that required cooperation toward a goal. Liking can also be decreased by involving people in competition with each other.

These examples show that you can regulate your emotions by engaging in behavior that decreases unpleasant feelings and increases pleasant feelings.

Feelings, Right or Wrong

Because our emotions are influenced by our beliefs and thoughts, we can sometimes be mistaken. However, this doesn’t mean they are right or wrong. I like to think of emotions as either adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (problematic).

Emotions are adaptive when they:

  • motivate us and help us respond appropriately
  • help us make good decisions
  • help us remember important things
  • warn us of real trouble and identify opportunities

Emotions are maladaptive when:

  • They are too intense (out of proportion)
  • They last too long
  • We are unable to manage or cope with them
  • We respond impulsively or destructively based on them

When you take the time to identify and explore your emotions instead of reacting impulsively, you may be able to come up with alternative explanations that make you feel better or healthier ways to cope with the situation.

Emotions Can Be Powerful

Sometimes our emotions are so overwhelming or seem “unacceptable” to us, so we need to protect ourselves from them. This can be a positive thing in moderation. If we felt everything at full intensity all the time, we would be frayed and exhausted. Everyone uses emotional defenses as a way of coping and they are not unhealthy unless they are overused. The following are some common emotional defenses:

  • Denial – refusing to acknowledge your feelings
  • Identification – assuming the feelings of someone else you admire
  • Compensation – making up for unacceptable emotions
  • Rationalization – finding excuses for your feelings
  • Projection – attributing your own feelings to another person
  • Daydreaming – fantasizing to escape unpleasant emotions
  • Displacement – taking out emotions on something other than the source
  • Reaction Formation – behaving in a manner opposite of the way you are feeling
  • Regression – reverting to immature behavior to express emotion
  • Sublimation – directing feelings in a useful rather than unacceptable manner

If you feel you may be overusing an emotional defense, it may be helpful to take an honest look at your emotions and practice responding to them in a different way. The key to managing emotions is learning to recognize them, taking the time to explore alternative perspectives and explanations, knowing whether it makes sense to respond or not, and coming up with adaptive responses that you can put into action.

If you or someone you love is having trouble managing emotions, talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can give you some tips and techniques for coping with overwhelming feelings. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

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