Powerful emotions can feel like you’re on a runaway horse. Emotional self-regulation helps you take back the reins.
Emotions are a natural and wonderful part of life. They color our world, help guide us through life, and give us insight into our inner thought processes.
But what happens when our emotions feel like they’re controlling us instead of the other way around?
Overwhelming emotions can result in emotional blow-outs, damaged relationships, and poor life decisions. Although it takes some practice, anyone can learn to better control their emotions and use them in more productive ways.
While we can’t completely eliminate emotions – nor would we want to – we can manage our emotions in such a way that we stay in the driver’s seat. This is known as emotional self-regulation.
When you develop strong emotional regulation skills, your mental health can improve significantly.
Emotional regulation requires that you build your emotional intelligence, also called emotional quotient (EQ). This is the ability to identify, understand, and effectively use your emotions to reduce stress, solve problems, and relate to others.
There are several ways you can increase your EQ.
Label the emotion
One of the most important aspects of emotional intelligence is being able to identify the emotions you’re feeling. Try to be as specific as possible.
For example, instead of just saying “I’m angry,” try going deeper. You might say, “I’m feeling bitter and confused because he stood me up again.” Or instead of saying “I’m sad,” say “I’m feeling rejected and hopeless because my partner left me.”
Understanding exactly what we’re feeling helps us communicate better with others and release our difficult emotions more easily.
Be OK with uncertainty
To the human brain, uncertainty feels like danger. This often makes us play out the worst-case scenarios in our minds and go into panic mode. For instance, if you’ve been to five job interviews and haven’t yet received an offer, you might feel like you’re never going to get a job.
When you find yourself catastrophizing, try the following exercise:
- Write out your worst-case scenario. (e.g. I’m never going to be hired.) When you allow your brain to “go there,” rather than letting it loom silently in the background, the idea feels less scary. Your brain is better able to recognize how unlikely this scenario actually is.
- Write out the best-case scenario. (e.g. I will get a job I love.) This scenario provides the opportunity to feel empowered and begin taking steps to achieve a best-case scenario. During this exercise, can also remind yourself of all the ways you are working towards your goal. Even making it to five different interviews is a huge accomplishment and there’s a lot to feel good about already.
Take opposite action
Dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that helps you manage difficult emotions. One of the concepts in DBT is “taking opposite action.” This means you engage in behaviors akin to the opposite emotion of what you’re feeling.
For example, if your landlord suddenly says you need to move out in 4 weeks, you might feel intense panic and helplessness. You might wonder how you will pack, move, and find another place to live in that amount of time.
In this case, taking the opposite action might involve smiling, rubbing your hands together, and saying, “Great, I can do this. I’m up for the challenge.”
This doesn’t mean you’re suppressing the emotion. You still need to identify and release your fear, but taking the opposite reaction reminds you that your reactions aren’t set in stone and that you really do have some control.
Get to the core of anger
Do you remember the last time you got really angry?
You probably felt that there was no other reasonable response at that moment. But by the next day, maybe you didn’t feel the same level of rage. Perhaps you even regretted it.
When we get angry, it’s often because we feel insulted, cheated, inconvenienced, or because something feels unfair. In other words, reality doesn’t meet expectations.
The next time you experience rage (or another intense emotion), try to figure out why you’re having such a strong reaction. Is it based on the assumption someone was acting out of malice? Perhaps you can give them the benefit of the doubt.
Is your anger worthy of a major reaction? If so, take action to address the problem rather than blowing up with rage.
For your brain to manage your emotions effectively, it needs to have enough fuel and rest.
Make sure you give your brain and body the following:
- Get a good night’s sleep.
2018 researchshows that sleep deprivation is linked to mood changes such as anger and aggression.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eat regular meals, and add more fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins and fats to your diet. Limit sugar, refined carbohydrates, and fried foods as much as possible.
- Aerobic exercise. A
2019 studyrevealed an 8-week mind-body course (aerobic jogging and mindfulness-based yoga) improved participants’ emotional regulation skills.
You can develop better emotional regulation skills with little time and practice. These skills allow you to identify, understand, and handle your emotions more effectively in daily life.
When you’re able to manage your emotions, your mental health and physical health improve. This, in turn, can help your relationships, career, and overall quality of life.
If you’re unsure where to begin, speaking with a mental health counselor can be a great first step. In therapy, you have the opportunity to explore your emotions and triggers and to develop strategies to better express and manage your emotions.