Wouldn’t it be great if you could get through family get-togethers without losing your cool, or have hard conversations with your partner without shouting at each other? This is where emotional regulation comes in. Read on to find out more about the importance of controlling difficult emotions and learn some simple and effective techniques to act in a more calm and dignified way.
Sounds fancy, what’s emotional regulation?
Emotional Regulation 101
First up, let’s talk about what emotional regulation isn’t. Emotional regulation does not mean denying our feelings or trying to eliminate them all together. Despite your best efforts, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll never feel anger, sadness or jealousy again for example. Not only that, these “negative” emotions are a natural and healthy part of the human experience. It’s fine to feel these negative feelings, it’s how you respond to them that matters. That’s what emotional regulation is about.
Put simply, we can say that emotional regulation is managing how you respond to your emotions. For example, you may feel angry that your partner didn’t do the dishes like you asked. You can’t control that. But what you do have control over is whether you scream and smash those dishes or if you take a deep breath and calmly talk to them about it.
Why is emotional regulation important?
It goes without saying that our emotions can have a powerful physical effect on us. They can make our heart race, palms sweat, body shake… Emotions can also overwhelm us and lead us to behaving inappropriately, in ways we'll probably regret later. Have you ever felt like that?
Think of how you act when you feel angry for instance. Research shows that there are four common ways to respond to feelings of anger:
- Escalation - you feel angry and you want everyone to know it, so instead of reacting calmly, you add fuel to the fire, making the situation worse.
- Invalidation - you only see things from your viewpoint so you invalidate the other person’s opinion by accusing them of lying, distorting the facts or not seeing things clearly.
- Withdrawal - you remove yourself from the situation by putting up a defensive wall, leaving the people around you feeling rejected, abandoned and confused.
- Negative interpretation - you interpret whatever is being said in a negative way, making it easier to take offense.
Have you ever reacted in one of these ways? If so, don’t beat yourself up. These are super common reactions. But we’re sure everyone can agree that there are healthier and more constructive ways of dealing with difficult emotions.
By working on emotional regulation, we can interact with others in a calmer and kinder way and build stronger and healthier relationships in the process as well as increasing our self-esteem. So how can we get better at managing difficult emotions?
Techniques to improve your emotional regulation
Ideally, emotional regulation is a skill we would have learnt as children, but that’s not the case for most of us. Fortunately, it’s a skill we can develop at any age. Here are a few practical tips and techniques to get started.
If you think back to a time when you felt difficult emotions, you may find that you were reacting without thinking. Perhaps you weren’t choosing what you wanted to say or how you wanted to behave. In other words you weren’t in control.
One of the most powerful ways to put the brakes on knee-jerk reactions is simply to pause. Pausing can be incredibly empowering because it helps us to slow things down and think about how we want to behave before a situation spirals out of control.
To harness the power of pause, first identify your triggers. They may be people or situations. For example, maybe you have a difficult family member who always seems to bring out the worst in you. Before visiting that family member, take a moment to pause and mentally prepare yourself for how you want to be. Do you want to be defensive, aggressive, and primed to be shocked by their behavior? Unlikely. Reflect on how you want to act around them to set yourself up for a more successful visit.
Once you're with that person you can also take the time to pause in the middle of a conversation to check in with yourself. How do you feel? Are your emotions getting the better of you? Are you behaving the way you want to behave? This can help us to slow down and behave with dignity and composure and can be applied to a number of challenging situations, like therapy sessions, a difficult conversation with your partner, a conversation you’ve been putting off with a colleague…
And you don’t have to wait for challenging circumstances to practice the power of pause. You can practice pausing in everyday conversations or when replying to a message by taking the time to respond appropriately in a way that reflects the best version of yourself.
It’s easy to dismiss but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of our breath. After all, emotional regulation is about regulating the nervous system and breath work is a fantastic way to do this.
If you already know some mindfulness and mediation techniques, you may find they help you when you feel your emotions are getting the better of you. But when the going gets tough, we suggest you try out one of these quick, simple and effective breath work techniques.
- 4-7-8 breathing - Some doctors call this breathing technique a natural tranquilizer because it’s so effective. And it’s so simple to do. All you need to do is take a sharp inhale to the count of four, hold your breath for the count of 7 and slowly exhale to the count of eight. It’s up to you if you breathe through your nose, mouth or both. Repeat 4-6 sets and you’ll see the calming effect it can have on your nervous system.
- Body scan - To do this technique, close your eyes and scan your body from head to toe or from toe to head, checking in with how each body part feels as you go. If you find any tension, breathe and let it go. If you like you can clench your muscles and then relax them as you go along. Not only does this exercise give your brain something else to focus on, it also gives you a physiological release as your breathing slows down.
- Diaphragmatic breathing - When we’re upset our breathing tends to get shallower. We can even end up hyperventilating. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or horizontal breathing helps us to combat this and calm the nervous system, helping us to move out of crisis mode and into thinking mode. All you have to do is place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Take deep breaths in, focusing on your stomach expanding on your inhale, followed by deep breaths out.
All of these well-researched breathing exercises help to deactivate the nervous system when we’re feeling overly emotional, triggered, unhappy, angry, or overwhelmed. So try them out next time you’re feeling agitated or upset and find which one works best for you.