Whether you know it or not, you probably practice some form of emotion regulation almost every day.
“Emotion regulation” is simply what a person does to manage their response to an emotional experience in their life, especially when the experience is negative. Positive emotion regulation is a skill that can be difficult at times no matter who you are, but some factors make it even harder.
“Day-to-day stress, biological factors like poor sleep, illness and hunger, and longer-term vulnerability from trauma or systems of oppression can all add up,” says Tiffany Hopkins, PhD, UNC Health clinical psychologist. “And if we’ve never been taught how to figure out what we are feeling or had role models showing positive ways to cope with emotions, it’s likely to be even more of a struggle.”
We all have healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger and fear. When you’re hit with a difficult emotion, it’s healthy to take a walk or do another type of exercise; talk to an empathetic friend or loved one; write in a journal or do anything else that helps reduce the negative emotion and makes it feel more manageable.
Unhealthy, and even counterproductive, attempts at emotion regulation might include avoiding or withdrawing from stressful situations, abusing alcohol or other substances, lashing out at others or self-injury.
The good news is that emotion regulation is “100 percent something you can get better at with practice,” Dr. Hopkins says.
Emotion Regulation Techniques to Try
You know when someone says or does something that makes you immediately, even furiously, angry, and you want to tell them off? Then, if you do, it feels good in the short-term but doesn’t help solve the problem at hand or strengthen your relationship.
In this case, and so many others, it can help to take a pause before you react. When you feel flooded with emotion, give yourself a second—or more—to pause. You can even tell the other person you need some time to calm down. Think carefully about your next steps and what you want to communicate before continuing the conversation.
When you feel strong, unpleasant emotions, it can be helpful to move your body, especially outside. Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. If exercise is not your thing, you could try practicing deep breathing or listening to music.
Of course, anger is not the only emotion that we need to regulate. All of us feel distress sometimes, or like we are in crisis. In times like these, emotion regulation techniques such as self-soothing, in which you use your five senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) to soothe and calm yourself, can be helpful. Examples of self-soothing activities could include watching a sunrise or sunset, burning incense or a scented candle, or taking a long, hot bath. These are all ways of comforting, nurturing and being kind to ourselves.
Any or all of these emotion regulation techniques can be helpful, for both children and adults. But what works for one person might not work for someone else, so it’s important for you to try several techniques to find the ones that work best for you, Dr. Hopkins says.
When Emotions Are Too Much: Dialectical Behavior Therapy
For some people, difficulty regulating their emotions can become so frequent, or so severe or long-lasting, that it causes significant problems in their personal relationships or their careers. When the problem reaches this level, mental health professionals refer to it as emotional dysregulation and a type of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) may be recommended as treatment, Dr. Hopkins says.
DBT was developed by psychologist Marsha M. Linehan, PhD, and consists of increasing a person’s strength in four skills: mindfulness, or being present in the moment; distress tolerance, learning to tolerate discomfort; interpersonal effectiveness, knowing how to ask for what you want in relationships and maintain those relationships; and emotion regulation, learning how to change or calm overwhelming emotions.
Dr. Hopkins is director of the Perinatal DBT Program at the UNC School of Medicine. In her clinical work, Dr. Hopkins uses DBT to help women, particularly those who have experienced pregnancy, birth or loss, recover from trauma.
One of the early steps in DBT treatment may involve asking a person to examine, and in some cases challenge, their own beliefs about emotions. There are many myths about emotions that can make effective emotion regulation more difficult. Common distorted beliefs include “letting others know that I am feeling bad is a weakness,” or “extreme emotions get you a lot further than trying to regulate your emotions.”
As DBT treatment progresses, a person begins to work on learning how to change their emotional responses with techniques such as:
- Check the facts: This technique provides questions that help you examine your emotional reactions and ingrained beliefs, which may not match the situation at hand.
- Opposite action: Every emotion comes with an urge to action, but when your emotion does not fit the facts, you can change the emotion by acting opposite to its action urge. For example, if you feel anger, you could react with kindness or gentle avoidance rather than anger.
- Problem-solving: Step-by-step, you can analyze the problem at hand, the facts, your goals and find a solution that works for you.
If you go through DBT with a trained therapist, you will learn concrete skills for dealing with difficult and overwhelming emotions.
If you have questions about mental health, talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.