If you notice that balancing and controlling your emotions is challenging, developing emotional regulation skills can help.
Emotional regulation is the ability to recognize, manage, and respond to your emotions.
When you don’t know how to regulate emotions, these can get a hold of you and impact the way you relate to yourself, others, and the world in general.
Emotional dysregulation refers to experiencing difficulty when trying to diffuse or manage strong emotions, particularly those considered negative like anger, frustration, and jealousy.
When emotions impact your overall quality of life, relationships, or performance at work or school, you may want to explore healthy ways to cope.
Emotional regulation is a learned skill, and one of the pillars of emotional intelligence.
It’s the ability to take in information, maintain your composure in proportion to the experience, and effectively communicate your needs to others.
Emotional regulation is a practice of cultivating a sacred buffer of time between feeling the emotion and your reaction to that emotion. For example, pausing to collect your thoughts before you respond.
It can also mean waiting until you’re in a supportive setting to process tough feelings.
Emotional regulation is an important tool for mental well-being in general and to protect and establish healthy relationships.
When this skill is honed, it can help you:
- feel balanced and in control of your emotional reaction
- stay calm during challenging situations
- better manage stress
- protect important connections
- actively listen to the needs of others
- express your needs in constructive ways
- remain professional in work situations
- not take things personally
The way you deal with emotions may, in part, have to do with how you were raised, particularly if you faced adverse experiences like abuse, neglect, or other causes of childhood trauma.
Emotional regulation isn’t as simple as “learning to control yourself.” It may come down to biological and neurological processes, specifically at:
- the limbic system, which houses your stress response (fight or flight)
- the prefrontal cortex, which helps you make rational decisions
“Developmentally, when an infant or child does not have their emotions responded to, validated, or explained by a caregiver, [these] two parts of the brain don’t learn to talk to each other,” says Kori Hennessy, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Emotional information continues to be overwhelming into adulthood and emotional dysregulation occurs,” she adds.
Mental health conditions and emotional regulation
Several diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) include emotional dysregulation as a possible symptom.
Some of these include:
Challenges in emotional regulation can arise when your reactions are considered to be out of proportion, or somehow socially inappropriate, on a regular basis.
Some signs that you aren’t properly regulating your emotions may include:
- abrupt changes in mood
- binge eating
- crying spells
- emotional outbursts
- persistent interpersonal conflict
- aggression or violent outbursts
- substance use disorder
- poor tolerance for frustration
Examples of emotional dysregulation
- a person who yells at the grocery clerk for handing them the wrong change
- an employee who drinks alcohol in excess to deal with nerves before a work conference
- a partner who storms out of dinner when their date looks at someone else
- a driver who gets cut off and tails the other car for several miles (road rage)
- a person who considers self-harm when their spouse starts working late
- a friend who stops talking to you when you express a different opinion
- a person who starts crying when they become frustrated with something they couldn’t do
When trying to develop emotional regulation skills, you may find it helpful to take on an integrated approach.
If possible, try sampling a combination of different strategies to see what works best for you.
1. In the moment, try to calm your nervous system
It’s difficult to “think” your way out of emotional dysregulation, says Britt Frank, a licensed psychotherapist in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of the upcoming book “The Science of Stuck.”
“This is because dysregulation is the function of the autonomic nervous system, not our ‘thinking’ or cognitive brains,” she explains. “The language of the nervous system is sensation and movement.”
While you’re feeling emotional, Frank recommends a few emotional regulation skills to help soothe your limbic system. These include:
- taking a cold shower
- holding an ice cube in one hand
- moving gently
- listening to music
- putting your hand on your pet’s heart and counting the beats
2. Consider accepting how you feel
When your emotions take over, try not to ask “why” questions. This would be akin to walking up to a burning building and asking why it’s on fire, says Frank.
“The first order of business is to get the people out of the building and figure out what happened later,” she says. “The same is true for mental health challenges.”
Instead of focusing on why this happened, try to ask the ‘what’ questions first:
- What are my choices right now?
- What tools do I have available?
- What people, places, or things will help me feel safer in this moment?
Reframing the situation may help you stay calm, says Frank.
“A cognitive reappraisal strategy that is almost always useful is to tell yourself: ‘I may not know why I’m experiencing this symptom, but my brain is trying to help me and I am not lazy, crazy, or unmotivated,’” she says.
3. Consider practicing mindfulness
When the storm has passed, so to speak, mindfulness-based activities can help you prepare for future emotional challenges by slowing things down.
Activities that keep you in the present moment make it easier to choose between a reaction (automatic) and a response (intentional) in those critical moments.
“Deep breathing, breathing from your belly, tells your nervous system that you are safe. Bringing our attention to the present moment helps reengage our prefrontal cortex,” says Hennessy.
Remember, your prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that’s charged with problem-solving and restoring calm. “Engaging your five senses by noticing one thing you can see, hear, taste, touch, and hear can also help,” she adds.
4. Try to engage in stress management
If possible, try to lead a lifestyle that will support relaxation and self-soothing.
That way, your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest-and-digest mode), will have time to engage and give you time to pause.
Some supportive activities may include:
- getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night
- preparing unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods
- eating at regular intervals, to prevent blood sugar dips
- engaging in physical activity for 30 minutes per day, 5 times per week
- seeking the support of your pets and loved ones
- spending time outside in the sunlight
- practicing relaxation techniques
5. Consider therapy
Emotional regulation techniques take work, and you don’t have to do this alone.
There are specific modalities that can help you uncover emotional patterns and interrupt unhelpful behaviors, like emotional reactions that don’t serve you anymore.
You may find it helpful to work with a therapist who specializes in:
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
If trauma is a part of your story, somatic therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may also be useful modalities to tap into.
In some cases, a mental health professional may talk with you about possible underlying conditions or explanations that may be getting in the way of emotional regulation. For example, you may be living with an anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder.
If this is the case, they would also talk with you about possible formal treatments for these conditions, including the need for some medications. Some common prescriptions used in mood-related conditions include:
How you feel is valid and natural. How you express and act out those emotions may depend on your emotional regulation skills.
Having difficulty managing your emotions can pose challenges to you or those around you.
But emotional regulation is a skill you can develop. Support from a trained mental health professional, practicing mindfulness, and learning self-soothing skills can help.