We all feel emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant ones! They are a very familiar and normal part of life.
Most of the time emotions are helpful and serve an important function as they motivate changes to our behavior. For example, they can:
- Help us to build relationships
- Motivate us to act against injustice
- Alert us to danger
Emotion regulation refers to our ability to control, manage, or change our feelings. This is something that we learn how to do – not a skill that we are born with.
This ability to regulate the intensity of our emotions is important. It enables us to think clearly, respond appropriately and cope with situations. We’ve all occasionally experienced our emotions getting out of control, or of not reacting in the best way possible. But if our emotions feel too intense, or not intense enough on a regular basis, we can run into problems.
Emotion dsregulation refers to regular difficulty managing intense or negative emotions. Emotion dysregulation is thought to contribute to a range of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders. Borderline personality disorder is perhaps the most widely known mental health condition where emotion dysregulation is often experienced.
However, it’s never too late to learn emotion regulation skills. Therapy is one way you can discover and practice new skills to manage your emotions and cope more effectively.
Healthy emotion regulation vs. emotion dysregulation
An example can help us to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation.
You are driving through traffic. Out of the blue, a car pulls out in front of you from a side street without warning. You are forced to brake hard to avoid a collision.
Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and your heart races. You think about how dangerous that was; an accident could have happened.
You take a couple of slow, deep breaths and consider the potential explanations for the driver’s behavior. Perhaps they didn’t see you coming and it was a genuine mistake, or perhaps they are rushing a loved one to the hospital.
You’re able to relax a little, re-focus on the road and drive safely, without any lingering strong negative emotions.
Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and your heart races. You think about how dangerous that was, how an accident could have happened, how you could have been killed.
Your thoughts are racing and you become tenser - you think about what an idiot the driver is, how entitled and arrogant they are to cut in front of you so dangerously - they must think they are more important than you; that you aren’t important at all, you are worthless!
You clutch the steering wheel, mind pounding with rage, and slam your hand down on the horn. You wind down your window and shout at the driver at the top of your voice. You find it hard to concentrate on the road and narrowly avoid hitting a car driving in the opposite direction.
Factors that affect our emotion regulation
The way we experience emotion is thought to be a combination of the temperament we are born with and our environment. Childhood is an important period of time where we develop the skills to calm ourselves, and the quality of our environment can affect this.
Some children, especially those who have been exposed to neglect, abuse, or have not had their needs met, may not be able to develop helpful emotion regulation skills.
Some people end up feeling too much emotion at times, which makes them more likely to feel overwhelmed and act impulsively without being able to think things through. Other people may not feel much emotion, which means that they aren’t motivated to take action or might feel numb or zoned-out.
There are also a bunch of current factors that affect our ability to regulate our emotions, such as:
- Sleeping well
- Getting regular exercise
- Eating healthy food
- Stressful life events
How can we learn to regulate emotions?
It’s best to navigate the challenging process of learning to regulate emotions while working with a skilled therapist. They might work through some of the following steps with you:
1. Improve our emotional awareness
To do this, we need to learn to become more aware of and identify our emotions. We can do this by examining how our emotions affect our thoughts, body and behavior.
Let’s take the emotion of anger. We need to learn how to identify that we are feeling angry so that we can regulate it. Anger affects our body by activating the fight-or-flight system, so we’ll feel sweaty, tense, our breathing and heart rate will be faster. Our thoughts might start racing, or our mind might feel blank. Anger also affects our behavior - we might confront, attack, shout or push.
Knowing how anger affects our body, thoughts and behavior make it easier to identify early, so that we can stop it from escalating. Practice identifying and labeling emotions. Even being able to just label an emotion can sometimes help decrease its intensity.
2. Keep a journal of your triggers
It’s important to also increase your awareness of what kinds of internal or external events act as triggers for emotion dysregulation.
We can reduce our vulnerability by making sure that we pay attention to our diet, try to stick to a regular sleep pattern and exercise regularly. Avoiding alcohol and drugs can also help us to better regulate our emotions.
4. Learn some new tools
When you recognize that you are having difficulty with an emotion, it’s really helpful to have a collection of tools prepared to use in the moment. These might be tools that distract you, help you tolerate distress, or help regulate the emotion. Examples include:
- Grounding exercise
- Practicing mindfulness
- Breathing exercise
- Watch a funny video online
- Listening to music
5. Work on how you think
Our thoughts can have a powerful influence on our emotions and behavior. A therapist can help you learn to identify and challenge your thoughts, think about things from a more helpful perspective, and develop coping statements or helpful self-talk.
6. Increase positive emotions
Make a list of activities that you find enjoyable or pleasurable, as well as activities that give you a sense of achievement. Some suggestions include having a massage, reading a book, having a coffee with a friend, or cooking a healthy meal. Use a diary and schedule time every day for your pleasant activity.
Therapy and emotion regulation
Although your therapist will work with you to choose the most appropriate type of therapy depending on your individual circumstances, two of the most common types of therapy for emotion regulation are:
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a talking therapy originally developed to treat Borderline personality disorder, explicitly involves learning emotion regulation skills.
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps us to understand the relationship between our thoughts, emotions and behavior, and can give us the skills to make those relationships more healthy.