Emotional Regulation: Keeping Your Calm

Any emotion that we experience in any given situation is in reality, our mind’s navigation system set in place for us to sense threats as well as rewards. As humans, we feel joy and sadness, contentment as well as disappointment, in varying proportions. No matter how strongly we feel a particular emotion or how we react under the influence of one, it all comes down to our emotional control.

Emotional control is the ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks or to control and direct behavior. Sometimes controlling our emotions can be a rough ride. For instance, we can experience anger surging through us that can easily pass for destructive behavior; we can experience crippling anxiety, sadness so profound that it becomes hard to function on a daily basis. In milder forms, sometimes we react in the heat of the moment, shy away from asserting ourselves because we fear rejection or just form a pessimistic perception of everything around us.

All of this gravitates towards one thing in the end of the day and that is our emotional control. The more technical term for this executive skill would be self-regulation of affect but to put it more simply, control here does not mean the repression of a feeling but the regulation of one.

When we are under an emotional or a physical threat, we feel fear before we direct ourselves to escape. Our behaviors do not happen in isolation, there is some thought behind it and more importantly, there is an emotion directing it. Most of us underestimate the power of our emotions, a few of us if at all, are aware of their emotions. A tiny percentage of people in a group will actually reflect on their emotions. We are open to feeling them because it is a default setting but we are not open to working on them.

If we learn to manage our emotions, they would not feel so consuming, our social and personal relationships will get better, we will know how to regulate our behavior and if nothing else, we would be controlling our emotions instead of our emotions controlling us. If you feel that, too often your emotions take the driving seat for you and then you can use the few strategies listed below to turn this executive skill from a weakness to strength.

1. Modification Strategies
Modification can be done in either our social and physical environment or in the task itself. If certain groups of people bring out difficult emotions in you, you may try to distance yourself from them for a while; similarly, if winters trigger sadness in you then you can make it a habit to soak up a little sunlight each day. It all boils down to knowing your triggers and finding effective modification strategies for them.

Task modifications usually gets trickier when dealing with this executive skill. It can be in terms of managing our task according to what is feasible for us. For instance, if a certain confrontation with a colleague is emotionally distressing for you, you can rehearse what you have to say instead of just confronting them as it is. You can make it a habit to reflect at the end of the day on what went well each day and what things were difficult for you to deal with so that you develop awareness regarding your emotional responses. 

2. Seeking Help from Others
Help from others can look like your partner providing you with cues regarding your behaviors like thumbs up if you are reacting appropriately. It can also be in the form of reality checks where people around us evaluate our behavior as being out of proportion or warranted. We can put a triggering situation hypothetically, in front of those people who we know have high emotional control and ask for solution. It provides perspective and it allows one to evaluate her own emotional reactions as well.

3. Be Aware of Your Triggers
We can be aware of our own triggers simply by listing down for ourselves all the possible situations that bring out an emotionally heightened response in us. When we have clarity about our triggers, it becomes much easier to deal with them.

4.  Apply Logic to Your Worries
Our worries have a tendency to nullify logical reasoning and tends to build on whatever catastrophic threat we have imagined for ourselves. If we start applying logic to our worries, we are likely to see how most of these worries are just extensions of our fears based on no realistic grounds. We realize that we have been feeding them, which is why they bring out such an explosive response out of us. So, if we stop doing that, they won’t feel so overwhelming.

5.  Detach Yourself from Drama
Sometimes we react out of proportion because we’re already in an emotionally charged situation. Therefore, if you are someone who is struggling with emotional regulation, it is a good idea to avoid getting into unnecessary fights or being in situation where people are already emotionally triggered. Taking a break from such an environment can prove to be beneficial.

6.  Exercise Control over Your Communication
You can start being mindful of how you communicate with people generally. If you engage in blaming, insulting, passive or ignorant ways then you can start with exercising control over how you relate to people and how you engage with them.

7.  Mindful Awareness
Mindful awareness happens in terms of experiencing an emotion in its totality, on a physical, emotional and cognitive level and staying with that emotion to assess how it feels. It’s done without any judgment attached to it.

8.  Cognitive Reappraisals
Cognitive Appraisals are how we learn to make sense of our experiences and the meaning we attach to them. A person who is struggling with controlling their emotions operates on polarities. Things are either black or white for her and so is the emotional expression. Through cognitive reappraisal, we can learn to tone down the intensity of our emotions by forming more realistic and balanced view of life events.

9.  Self-Affirmations
Self-Affirmations or Positive self-talk can be a coping strategy when crisis management is needed and emotional control is already a weakness. We form our own versions of effective soothing statements that can do the regulation for us when our emotions hit the roof and in the moment, management is needed. For instance, you may tell yourself that ‘I have it under control, I’ve done this before’ when you’re met with an anxiety-provoking situation.

10.  Emotional Catharsis
Emotional Catharsis is simply letting yourself to not only feel but also express all the healthy and difficult emotions without labeling them or yourself in any way. It is to allow yourself to express what you are feeling in full intensity but not engaging in it. It not only gives your emotions the expression it needs, it also helps you normalize them for you so the next time something happen, it doesn’t feel as consuming. The expression can be verbal or written, whenever you find yourself overwhelmed by the intensity of an emotion, choose to express it in front of a neutral person. If expressing it verbally is hard, you can even write about that experience and give it an outlet.

11.  Lifestyle Change
The most effective strategy that one can adopt when it comes to dealing with not just emotional control but anything is making a few lifestyle changes that already help an individual keep the stress levels below the threshold at all times. This way even if a trigger is present, you’re better equipped to deal with that emotion in the first place. This can be through daily walks, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, music or deep breathing in normal day-to-day routine.

Author: Iqra Naz
Clinical Psychologist
Family First Institute

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