Emotional Regulation Explained

In the world today especially on social media the message we see reiterated time and time again is that of positivism. This is not always a bad thing, but it has reached a point that the message communicated is that; negative emotions don’t hold a place in our emotional experiences. Emotions are on a spectrum, and we need to understand that while positive emotions such as happiness, gratitude and love are welcome, the onset of certain negative emotions are as vital. Healthy emotional regulation indicates that an individual is able to experience a wide array of emotions both positive and negative.

Emotions are signals that our body gives us about the environment around us. They signal threat and reward type scenarios, and they provide us with valuable knowledge about what environments we feel safe in and what environments are particularly threatening to us. They act as a guiding tool for behaviour, if you are experiencing a positive emotion toward your environment, it is likely that your behaviour will match this emotional response. However, if you feel like you are in a hostile environment the emotion you attach to said environment will be hostility and your behaviour will be along those lines as well. All emotions have their purpose, and we simply need to listen to what they are trying to tell us.

Negative emotions in specific can help you identify certain threats in your environment and help you stay better prepared to deal with these threats. Negative emotions also can alert us that something in our environment needs to change, and the onset of these emotions tend to motivate us to exact that change.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand when to act on our emotional triggers and when to further analyse them. This is essentially the concept of Emotional Regulation, where we are able to regulate and control our emotions in order to gain the optimal benefits from them. 

“Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.” (Gross, 1998)

The classification of emotional regulation incorporates both positive and negative emotions, further inclusive of how we can reinforce them, execute them, and manage them.

On a daily basis we face countless scenarios that provoke an emotional response within us. These can be both positive and negative. For example, you might have had a bad start to your day and got scolded by your boss, or you might have had a great start where somebody pays you an unexpected compliment. Both of these scenarios create an emotional response. In certain scenarios through-out the day you might be bombarded with emotion provoking-stimuli and due to this you might either get accustomed to ignoring your emotions or paying particular attention to the more negative emotions. How emotional regulation helps is that it assists you in filtering the more significant pieces of emotional information and prompts us to pay attention to it in a manner that doesn’t produce stress or fear.

Emotions and their classification are deeply linked to evolutionary biology. The manner in which we feel and understand our emotions is directly linked to our thoughts, decisions and how we behaviourally proceed in our lives. When we are faced with provoking stimuli in our environment it activates the are of the brain that regulates the fight-flight-freeze response (Lee, 2018; Van der Kolk, 1994). Emotional regulation acts as buffer between the emotional response and the behavioural response.

So, you might be wondering what the consequences of poor emotion regulation are? It is likely that an individual who struggles with executing emotion regulation strategies will feel shifts and divergence in their mood, and as result their actions/behaviours will be strongly linked to their emotional responses. On the other hand, somebody who is able to well-regulate their emotions will experience better sense of balance and reasoning of their feelings and behaviours.

“Emotional regulation allows us to carefully judge which affective outcomes to embrace and which ones to avoid” (Wegner, Erber, & Zanakos, 1993).

Emotional regulation skills that are useful to develop

  1. Self-Awareness
  • Create a kind a space to feel your emotions without judgement. (Don’t shame yourself for feeling certain emotions this does not help when it comes to regulation, give yourself a moment to feel it).
  • Stop and label what you are feeling (“What is this emotion called?”).
  • Be curious about the emotion (“Where is this emotion coming from? What is this emotion trying to tell me?”).
  • Acknowledge and accept the emotion (Telling yourself that emotions are a normal response to environmental stimuli).
  • Identify your triggers (Being aware of what makes you experience negative emotions is a good piece of information to have about yourself. Not to create avoidance but self-awareness.)
  • Identify where you feel the emotion in your body (Sometimes we get physical indicators of our emotions way before we are even aware of their onset).

2. Cognitive Reappraisal

  • Learning the importance of changing your thought patterns. Sometimes we look at certain scenarios in our lives only through a dark and negative lens. It can be useful to alter that perspective slightly.
  • Replacing thoughts like “I am stupid I always make mistakes” with thoughts like “I am sure if I look at this from another angle, I will be able to figure it out”. OR another example if you usually thing things like “My boss is going to fire me if I mess up again” you can alter that with “I know I am hard-working and sincere let me give it another attempt”.
  • Reframing the thought and situation can change how you approach it both emotionally and behaviourally. This helps us be more objective with our problems.

3. Developing flexibility

  • When we are unable to regulate our emotions, this tends to lower our chances to adaptability. This means we would essentially find it difficult to cope with change, and since change is a constant in the world, we live in this would prove to be problematic.
  • Increasing flexibility might look like analysing the pros and cons of the situation in front of you and keeping an open mind to the possibilities of what change brings.

4. Learning to practice Self-compassion

  • Making sure you prioratise “Me Time” every day, even 5-10 minutes to sit with your thoughts and reflect. Reminding yourself of your positives and looking at mistakes and flaws through a compassionate lens.
  • Instead of engaging in harsh and negative self-talk regarding your mistakes try asking yourself “How can I learn from this situation”.
  • Remind yourself that you are a human that is learning and growing daily and a part of the human experience is to make mistakes and learn from them. Perfection is unrealistic.
  • You could engage in gratitude journaling as a means of mindfully practicing self-compassion.

If you are struggling to regulate your emotions and even the tactics above prove to be challenging to practice. It is worth exploring your regulatory response with a mental health professional, there can be incidents or factors in your environment affecting your emotions. Speaking to a professional will give you clarity and provide you with more personalised coping strategies.

“No matter the reason for the emotional volatility, the good news is that we can learn better self-regulation.” – Bethany Klynn

Written by Sanchia Supramaniam