The ability to regulate or manage our emotions is one of the four elements of emotional intelligence (EQ). In some recent coaching sessions, I observed that a lack of emotional regulation can cause real issues for the performance and mental well-being of individuals and for those they supervise, their peers and superiors. Many people are experiencing strong emotions – particularly fear – as they face the prospect of a return to travelling to and working in an office. Others face strong emotions as they cope with situations such as redundancy and unemployment. But any change may provoke a strong emotional response. In this post, I explore basic ideas about emotional regulation – a key element of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). And share some techniques to help you regain control over your emotions in life’s tricky moments – and build your resilience for the future.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. People unconsciously use emotional regulation strategies to cope with difficult situations many times throughout each day.
“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 et al. 1998)
We all feel and experience negative and positive emotions every day. And at different levels of intensity. Emotions are a normal part of our everyday lives. Some people suggest there are five core emotions: joy, fear, sadness, disgust and anger. Only 35% of people tested are able to accurately identify their emotions as they happen. For some people, feeling these emotions can seem overwhelming, like an out-of-control roller coaster.
Emotions are how we interpret the various chemical reactions and sensations in our bodies. The emotion is the stimulus and we respond. For example, when we experience fear from a perceived threat our bodies are flooded with stress hormones that drive the fight (adrenaline), flight (noradrenaline) and freeze response. Emotional regulation processes give us time before we act on the fight or flight triggers. It allows time for cognitive, rational thinking and reasoning to play a part.
In childhood, we learn how to recognise different emotions and respond to them by observing the reactions of those around us and the behaviour of our care givers. Hopefully, we learn when we are young to take a few moments to reflect on how we are feeling before acting immediately. Counting to 10 when angry is a good example of this strategy. Care-givers talking about the consequences of action also helps us develop emotional regulation skills – e.g. when they point out that if you hit out angrily at people they will be upset and scared and may avoid you in future. So you learn to say what it is that is upsetting you and ask calmly for what you want or need instead (“use your words”).
There are three components of emotional regulation:
- Initiating actions triggered by emotions
- Inhibiting actions triggered by emotions
- Modulating responses triggered by emotions
We are not our emotions. We may experience sadness without being depressed, we may experience anger without acting out. We can choose how we react to our emotions.
Why is emotional regulation important?
We are bombarded with emotion-provoking stimuli every day. And many require us to make some response – for example: to eat, to drink, to walk, to interact, to stretch or to leave a situation or environment.
Emotions are thought by some to be adaptive responses from evolutionary biology. Emotional regulation helps us to filter out the most important pieces of information and allows us to attend to it in a way that doesn’t provoke stress or fear.
As well as the obvious benefits, such as feeling better in the present moment, strong emotional regulation skills can also enhance long-term wellbeing, improve performance at work, enrich personal relationships and lead to better overall health.
Also, regulating our emotions through (for example – problem solving, assertiveness, reappraisal of the situation etc) makes those emotions much less likely to escalate and lead to regrettable actions and/or situations.
Be aware that we can “catch” emotions from others. Emotional contagion is real.
Emotions and moods
While moods aren’t the same as emotions, emotions do affect moods. This means emotional regulation can lead to mood improvement, which in the long run can increase compassion and empathy for others.
Emotions are easier to regulate than moods because they are directed at something specific and they don’t last as long. It only takes our brains about a half a second to identify an emotional trigger and release the chemicals that form an emotional reaction.
Moods, on the other hand, are influenced by a collection of inputs in addition to outside factors such as the environment (e.g. weather, people), physiology (e.g. diet, exercise, sleep, sickness), thinking (where attention is focused) and current emotions as well. While emotions last seconds or minutes, moods can last for days.
Jessica Payne did some work on the high performance environment. She found there were three conditions: a degree of stress, a positive mood and sufficient sleep.
How easy is it to regulate emotions?
It’s important not to be ashamed of uncomfortable or unwanted emotions. Everyone has them – it’s what you do with them that matters. People with strong emotional regulation are better able to manage depression (see this book on depression) – they are better able to balance their feelings and actions. People with lower levels of anxiety show higher emotional control.
Emotional regulation varies in individuals. Some people were raised with excellent coping skills as children, while others had little or no behavioural guidance growing up.
Emotional regulation is a skill, and like any skill it can be learned and improved with practice. Meditation is one of several methods that work for certain people, along with breathing techniques and self-awareness strategies (see below).
When emotions spin out of control
At some point in everyone’s life, emotions can spin out of control. Whether provoked by an argument, professional or personal failure, or concern about a loved one, unchecked emotions can lead to regret for things said and done in the heat of the moment. And it’s not just “negative” emotions that have the ability to harm – “positive” emotions like excitement and triumph can be negative in the wrong context.
Knowing how to cope with our emotions can help us avoid damaging our relationships at home and at work.
Know your emotional triggers
Because we develop most of our emotional regulation abilities when we are young, we are often unaware of what it is that is triggering an emotion – it is a subconscious process. So, for example, a comment that is largely ignored by most people may have a dramatic effect on one person. Because it triggers a memory of a strong emotional response from their past.
So when we have a strong emotional reaction to something or someone, we should spend some time trying to understand what it was that caused the reaction. Was it something in that particular moment or was it evoking a memory of something in the past?
We become psychologically exhausted as the day progresses. Psychologist Roy Baumeister demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control and making quality decisions. Decision fatigue is one by product of this. When we are tired at the end of the day, we have less energy to regulate our emotions. This is seen when people have controlled their behaviour all day at work and then return home to snap at their families. So schedule situations that are likely to evoke strong emotions for early in the day.
There was some interesting neuroscience research that showed some people react very strongly to negative or constructive feedback. Research by Naomi Eisenberger has shown that the brain treats social pain much like physical pain. So receiving feedback – for some people – can evoke very strong emotional reactions.
Emotional regulation skills
People unconsciously use emotional regulation strategies to cope with difficult situations many times throughout each day. Most of us use a variety of emotion regulation strategies and are able to apply them to different situations in order to adapt to the demands of our environment. Some of these coping strategies are healthy, some are not.
What causes emotions to feel so overwhelming? It is really important to note that the experience of an emotion is not what leads to difficulties. It is the interpretation of this emotion that tends to ratchet up feelings and a sense of not being able to tolerate them. We call this a “vicious emotional cycle.” Emotions, thoughts, and our behaviour are all linked together.
Healthy coping strategies, such as managing stress with a walking program, do not cause harm. They can help to diffuse strong emotions, often allowing for a greater understanding of what led to the emotional experience.
Healthy approaches to emotional regulation:
- Talking with friends
- Writing in a journal
- Taking care of self when physically ill
- Getting adequate sleep
- Paying attention to negative thoughts that occur before or after strong emotions
- Noticing when you need a break – and taking it
Unhealthy approaches to emotional regulation:
- Abusing alcohol or other substances
- Avoiding or withdrawing from difficult situations
- Physical or verbal aggression
- Excessive social media use
There are other techniques to help with emotional regulation.
- Self-awareness This is one of the four components in emotional intelligence (see a short explainer video on emotional intelligence). We need to notice what we feel and name the emotion. Many people do not have a good emotional vocabulary to label the different emotions they experience. So practice taking a moment and exploring what you are feeling – where it manifests (e.g your stomach, your heart, your head) and what name you give to the different emotions. Emotions can be felt at different intensities too – so try to grade how strongly you are experiencing the emotion. Taking the time to think about what you are feeling provides space for you to re-gain some control.
- Mindful awareness This is where we explore and identify all aspects of the external world – including our body. There is a grounding exercise where you try to focus on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. There are simple exercises such as controlling your breathing or relaxing each part of your body in sequence.
- Cognitive re-appraisal This is sometimes known as reframing. It means taking a different perspective on a situation – or reframing a negative situation as a more positive one.
- Adaptability When we cannot regulate our emotions, we can’t work out what we need to do to adapt to the situation. This might make us nervous about attempting change. Objective evaluation is a technique here – imagine someone you know well experiencing what you are feeling and consider what advice you might give them to cope more effectively.
- Self-compassion This is about being kind to ourselves. Setting some time for ourselves each day – either to sit quietly with a favourite beverage or to take a run. Talking positively to ourselves and reminding ourselves of our strengths and talents can help. Some people keep a gratitude journal to remind themselves of all the good things in their life. This is a form of self-soothing.
- Emotional support Engage in positive communication with others. Seeking help from professionals such as therapists is another form of emotional support.
The STOP model is described in this short video on resilience.
The impact of stress
Even people who score high on the ability to regulate their emotions on emotional intelligence (EQ) assessments may fare less well when they are stressed. The physical impact of stress on our bodies affects our cognitive abilities so we may find it much more difficult to regulate our emotions in times of great stress. This was sadly a common situation with the impact of Covid restrictions.
This far-sighted book (Crazy busy) by a psychiatrist takes a look at the stresses of modern life and provides many coping strategies.
The need to build resilience
Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from or recovery from set backs – or tough emotional situations.
I recently attended a workshop from Richmond Borough Mind to help front-line care workers develop their resilience. The idea is also a central component of Mental Health First Aid training. They both offered a concept idea to help with emotional regulation.
They suggest that we each have a stress bucket – denoting our capacity to cope with a certain level of stress. Each person’s bucket might be a different size. We accept stress into our bucket each day – but if we receive too much it overflows. When this happens, we suffer from feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Therefore, we need to do things to reduce the amount of stress in the bucket on a regular basis. Some of these strategies are mentioned above.
I prepared a short 10 minute video on building resilience in May 2020 which considers four techniques: Regulation, Reframing, Relationships & Reflecting on realistic goals.
Emotional dysregulation is the term used to describe an inability to regularly use healthy strategies to diffuse or moderate negative emotions. While all people occasionally use less than ideal emotion regulation strategies, individuals who regularly experience what feels like overwhelming, intense negative emotions are much more likely to rely on unhealthy strategies.
Sometimes, the inability to manage emotions becomes more serious. Emotional Dysregulation (ED) is a term used by mental health specialists for emotional responses that are weakly managed and deviate from the accepted range of positive reactions.
Emotional dysregulation (ED) disorder is often manifested by symptoms such as:
- Sudden and unexplained anger outbursts that get displaced to someone who did not cause any harm. This may include passive-aggressive patterns of behaviour.
- Chronic pain and illness not caused by any medical condition and remain unexplained by medical professionals.
- Self-destructive or self-harming behaviour, including thoughts of suicide.
- Difficulty in building and maintaining healthy relationships in personal and professional life.
- Attentional dysregulation, including the inability to focus on meaningful work because the mind is too occupied with negative thoughts and emotions.
- Hypersensitivity and poor self-control.
The worst part of ED is that it often appears in association with other mental health issues such as depression, stress, or extreme mood polarities. So the management of ED requires an overall intervention plan for addressing all the associated problems from a mental health professional.