Regulating emotions is one of the best things that you can do for yourself and others in your environment.
Emotional regulation is really about the ability to bring yourself back on even keel, to calm yourself down when you are distressed, to lift yourself up when you are feeling dejected, and to help yourself feel better. It is about being able to restrain yourself from destructive actions and point yourself in the direction of constructing, value-creating actions.
Emotions provide us with information, and by acknowledging them and redirecting them as needed, we become less a victim of our thoughts and feelings and more of a responsible steward of them.
We are affected by others’ energy field. You can feel this for yourself when you are around someone who is in a foul mood or around someone who is radiating positive energy. I like to think about practicing emotional regulation as making efforts toward not polluting my environment. Our earth is full of toxic chemicals and pollutants. As we focus on trying to clean up our external landscape, let’s also pay attention to keeping our inner landscape non-toxic.
This is not a stick to beat yourself up with — we all experience negative and toxic emotions. In fact, part of our tendency to think negatively has helped us to survive as a species. We are wired to be attuned to threats in our environment. So negative thinking has a place and is not always a bad thing.
Many clients come into my office requesting anger management. Anger comes in many forms. Even if you do not have an anger problem, such as being violent and aggressive, you do experience anger in its lesser forms, such as irritability, impatience, and frustration.
The first thing that I work with anger management clients on is taking a mind and body timeout when the signals of anger arrive. The body provides information that anger is occurring and ramping up, and there are some common physical messengers. These include:
- increasingly rapid breathing
- increased heart rate
- clenched jaw or fists
- muscle tension
The body’s signals serve as a cue to arrest the escalating physiological process. By slowing, distracting and focusing on the breath — perhaps breathing and counting or using calming phrases — the mind can take a timeout and you essentially buy yourself time.
Imagine a big block in between your brain and your mouth, so that you remember to buy yourself time in between thoughts and verbal responses or reactions. Many clients have shared with me that they punch a punching bag or a pillow, or scream into a pillow when angry. This can serve to reinforce aggression and build the muscle of reactive anger. Redirection to a state of calm seems intuitively wiser and is supported by scientific research.
The next time you feel yourself getting angry, notice what is happening in your body. Use the signal to start your breathing practice. Count the breaths or use a phrase like “breath coming in, breath going out.” My personal favorite is “you are calm” on the inhale, and “you are relaxed” on the exhale. Repeat this until you feel your body start to let go of the tension. Repeat as necessary.
It is also useful to practice with the lesser forms of anger. Notice throughout the day when you become irritated or frustrated. Waiting for something or standing in a line is a good place to practice. Notice the feeling, start the breathing practice, distract yourself, or formulate new thoughts about the situation. A measure of acceptance and validation may be helpful in the process. Acknowledge that you have a hard time being patient; waiting in this line makes you want to scream.
Now proceed to skills implementation. A replacement thought may be: “Maybe I did pick the slowest line. I am going to breathe through this, and not focus on this woman writing a check right now. It’s time to practice.”
All anger is not negative. Righteous anger has fueled immense social change, such as the civil rights movement, gay marriage recognition and legalization, and more equal rights for women. If you are being abused, mistreated, or disrespected it would be normal and functional to feel anger.
Part of the art of living is discriminating between the anger that fuels change or is motivating, versus the utilization of anger as your primary emotion, and the incessant toxic dripping of impatience and irritation on your psyche and immune system.
Females and males are socialized differently and it seems that the most socially acceptable form of emotion for men is anger, while an angry female is frowned upon. These stereotypes are limiting. As humans we have a right to express a wide range of emotions, as long as we are not destructive to self and others.
Punishing yourself for having feelings is like punishing yourself for being human. Allowing emotions to have space and place in your life can dilute their destructive potential and contribute to constructive action and a sense of well-being.