How do we regulate our emotions?

“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

Emotional regulation is how we manage our behaviour in reaction to various emotional stimuli. For example, you might be queuing in supermarket and someone cut in front of you with no apology or explanation. This would understandably make you angry. Your brain is going to be firing off several different processes to drive a behaviour. It falls to us and our conscious awareness to decide to modulate our reaction to the emotion. This is emotional regulation. 

Sometimes we are not able to do this, sometimes we lash out, fall in to a negative spiral or feel out of control and getting ourselves back in to a state of balance is hard, really hard. 

Building emotional awareness (understanding, deciphering and articulating your emotions) and emotional resilience (the ability to work with your emotions, adapt to different emotional situations and manage with emotional extremes)are the building blocks to emotional regulation. By continuing to learn about yourself; your conditioning, your beliefs, your blocks, you will in turn develop strong emotional awareness, self awareness and a supportive healthy mindset.

Why do we sometimes struggle with emotional regulation?

Maybe as a child you weren’t encouraged to show your feelings or emotion, maybe emotions weren’t talked about openly or how to make sense of them. Maybe, it was suggested that sharing your feelings was a sign of weakness and should be hidden or pushed to the back of your mind. 

Maybe your parent/parent or caregiver was highly emotional and so you witnessed various emotional extremes, but didn’t see the skills or strategies to bring the emotional state back to a middle ground or manageable level. 

  • We learn how to respond (considered action) and reaction (knee jerk) to different scenarios from what we observe and what we experience. As we know mostly this is learned in your younger years but events beyond this point can also impact your emotional intelligence and emotional regulation. 
  • Through becoming aware of your feelings, where you feel them in your physical body, and what behaviours they elicit in you you can begin to become aware of subtle differences between different emotions and can start to more confidently articulate and label them. 
  • Through awareness of your experiences you can also begin to create space between a trigger (anything that causes a feeling or dis-ease or discomfort) and your behaviour so that you can choose to respond rather than react. And you can choose what that response is going to be.

3 ways to build emotional awareness and resilience:

1- Recognise and accept that emotions are not good or bad, they are simply there as guideposts to help you understand yourself or a situation better and how you can navigate it. By appreciating emotions for what they are they no longer the enemy and become an essential part of your team. 

2- Look for the emotion underneath the emotion. We have 7 primary or core emotions; Bad, Fearful, Angry, Sad, Happy, Surprised and Disgusted. Then underneath those you have secondary emotions. For example beneath anger might be humiliated or frustrated. If we can start to see and feel the subtle differences between our emotions we can begin to use them better as signals and from there understand how to respond in a supportive way for us. 

3- Talk about your feelings – Human beings are naturally curious and naturally sociable (yes even if you’re an introvert). We are supposed to interact with other humans and learn from each-other. Talk about your feelings with friends and family or someone you feel comfortable talking to them about. It doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation, simply starting to bring how you’re feeling into the conversations you would have anyway. If this is a step too far for you then journal work is a great alternative to expressing your emotions in a safe way.