“I’m going for a walk,” you say on your way out the door after a conflict with your loved one. You make sure to close the door carefully on the way out; you don’t want to slam it and scare them. After twenty minutes, you’ve had time to collect your thoughts, take deep breaths, and return home. With a controlled tone, you’re able to finish the conversation you and your loved one were having without letting emotions cloud your judgment.
Walking away and finishing an intense conversation after you are more level-headed is a form of emotional self-regulation. This important practice looks at how you manage your own emotional responses and behaviors in real time. As a toddler, this might’ve looked like whispering in a movie theater. As a teen, it might look like the first time you apologized to someone without being told to do so. And as an adult, this can be noticing your burnout and taking steps to recuperate. However you choose to self-regulate, it is an important skill to develop for healthy social relationships moving forward.
When to Practice Emotional Self-Regulation
The simple answer is: every day. Whether you are affected by a fight, a sad movie, or a piece of bad news, you will come across emotional triggers daily. Regardless of what the emotional trigger is, it is important to control your impulses. Self-regulation includes being mindful during social situations, such as perceiving other people’s emotions and making sure your behavior reflects your environment.
When you experience an emotional trigger, it causes a physical and mental change—anxiety might cause you to lose focus and make your heart pound, anger can increase your blood pressure and release stress hormones, and discouragement might give you a stomachache and a depressed mood. When these uncomfortable sensations occur, you may no longer feel in control of your actions and your body. You might find yourself overthinking, imagining horrible situations in the future without solutions. And you may hurt yourself with self-deprecation, afraid of letting it affect anyone around you. Whatever the situation may be, the strong, almost untenable emotion within you causes your need to regulate.
Our emotions can get the best of us at work, on our commute home, in the grocery store, or while scrolling through Facebook. What is important is recognizing how increased emotional responses need monitoring—that in moments when you feel your emotions are overtaking you, it is best to check in with yourself.
What Can Emotional Self-Regulation Look Like?
When you notice that your emotions are rising, name your primary emotion—fear, anger, grief, or any other discomfort. Recognizing the emotion will help you accept it. This is called self-observation—taking note not just of the patterns and frequency of your emotions, but what triggers them. In a non-judgmental way, analyze yourself. Experiencing intense emotions isn’t inherently wrong, and there is no shame in acknowledging, When I am late, I get so anxious that I throw up. When I am angry, I yell at my partner. When I am scared, I shut down and become nonverbal.
All of those anxious thoughts that rattled around inside of you, charging you up, are part of those negative beliefs you have—that you will be penalized for a simple mistake, that someone will be mad at you, even that you’ll suffer financially because you had to clean up after your dog. By recognizing these negative thought patterns, you’ll be able to reframe your anxieties into positive beliefs: Even if I’m late, I can explain to my boss why I’m late. It’s better that I took the time to clean up and bring in the package. I can’t change the time of day or the traffic on the road.
It is easier to change thoughts than it is to change emotions. While we can’t turn off our anxiety, we can self-soothe, and reassure ourselves that we can get through any challenging circumstance.
Emotional Self-Regulation Skills
Some of your common thought patterns can have detrimental effects on your emotional and behavioral wellbeing. There are better alternatives to a lot of worrisome ways of thinking that will expand your window of tolerance.
Rumination vs. Reflection – Ruminating on the past is compulsively hurting yourself; you are more focused on what could’ve been than towards identifying future solutions. Reflection on the past is different—you are allowing yourself room to not only find fault in your past behavior, but to identify your strengths, passions, values, and life goals. Replacing rumination with reflection will increase your confidence in yourself, helping you realize your potential.
Catastrophizing vs. Cognitive Reappraisal – As previously stated, catastrophizing is assuming the worst will happen. With cognitive reappraisal, your goal is to reframe your negative thoughts as positive ones. If you catch yourself thinking in extremes, weigh the evidence—is my reaction conducive to the size of the problem? Chances are, instead of thinking about solutions, you’re thinking about problems. When assumptions, biases, and fears rise to the surface, examine their practicality and reframe your mindset. Ways to practice cognitive reappraisal include: avoiding the use of dark humor to cope, learning dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills, and using exercise to process negative beliefs.
Avoidance vs. Acceptance – Emotional and cognitive avoidance can look like: relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as using substances, to numb strong feelings; dissociation; daydreaming new scenarios; relying on toxic positivity; stonewalling, when you choose to stop a conversation instead of resolving conflict; or procrastinating, such as putting off addressing an important conflict with your partner. Acceptance is not just of yourself, but your situation; it is an acknowledgement of the internal and external stressors. Acceptance can be practiced by visualizing your struggles like paper boats floating down a stream—you see them, watch them sail by, and then let them pass on.
Behavioral Self-Regulation Skills
Once you have successfully regulated your emotions, you need to reflect on your true intentions, and make sure they translate into your actions. If you are experiencing a bubbling up of emotions in private, the way you deal with the fallout would be different than during an argument with your family. Depending on the height of your feelings, your environment, and your capabilities, how you self-regulate can differ.
In order to make sure you prevent hurting yourself or others, you can replace old, maladaptive coping mechanisms with healthier options.
Setting Rules vs. Setting Boundaries – Communicating your needs includes expectations not just for yourself, but others; setting boundaries is not about being in control but being transparent. A boundary is not a command or a threat—it is a framework of how you want to be respected. A rule is telling your partner that you don’t want them to have their friends over if you always have to clean up the mess that they leave behind. However, a boundary is telling your partner not what they can’t do, but instead what you won’t do—in this case, continue to clean up their friends’ mess after they go home.
Silent Treatment vs. Taking a Break – Stonewalling a conversation and abandoning any efforts to fix things can damage a relationship. The “silent treatment” is a form of avoidance; you are choosing to ignore the issue rather than face it head-on. Having a chance, however, to take some space, cool off, and make sure your emotions don’t get the best of you is positive communication; just because someone needs a break, doesn’t mean they don’t want to resolve conflict. When you recognize that your emotions are running high, you can excuse yourself. Let the other person know that you are not abandoning them or the conversation, but simply going into a separate room to self-soothe, reflect, and come back with a clear mind.
Impulsivity vs. Opposite Action – Impulsive choices and panicked thinking can greatly affect your actions. When you are unregulated, things like interrupting others, missing what they’re saying, or jumping to conclusions are a common occurrence. With patience, you will be able to achieve opposite action—acting not on your impulse, but your thoughts. Imagine you are texting your partner and the conversation becomes tense. By first identifying your emotions and then your impulse (for example: “I’m mad and want to type out an angry message”), you can come up with an opposite action that won’t escalate a situation (“I’m going to answer this text later and go for a walk instead”).
The Benefits of Emotional Self-Regulation
Learning self-regulation skills is part of emotional intelligence. With effectively managed emotions, you can respond appropriately in social settings and have more clear and effective communication with others. Emotional dysregulation causes relationship dissatisfaction, within friendships and romantic relationships; the most valuable emotional relationships in your life can be damaged from a lack of emotional clarity, particularly around anger and jealousy. Anger dysregulation is a leading reason for people to face the loss of a job, a relationship, a marriage, or a friendship. And having effective ways of managing your emotions won’t just benefit you, but exhibit to children appropriate ways to deal with their overwhelming feelings.
Emotional self-regulation is a way to take care of yourself, your environment, and those you love. It fosters a deeper understanding of self and gives you a chance to reflect on what you can do better for yourself and others. This skill, one that takes work and time to develop and appreciate, will only help you live mindfully and peacefully.
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