Everyone can have a hard time controlling their emotional reactions sometimes — it’s part of being human. But if it happens often, these regulation tools may help.
You’re going about a typical day when something changes. Suddenly, you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or out of control of your emotions.
Perhaps you’ve heard the usual self-help advice, like “pause and take a breath,” and the not-so-helpful advice like “just control yourself.” Yet somehow, you still feel like your emotions are in the driver’s seat while you’re sitting passenger.
When this happens, it can help to remember your feelings are there for a reason. There is no such thing as a “bad” emotion. If possible, try to find gratitude for your feelings, as they contain valuable information. If you can, try to welcome emotions — all emotions — as your friend.
It is possible to learn how to effectively manage your emotions with some practice, a few therapist-backed strategies, and (possibly) professional support.
Self-regulation is the ability to experience your thoughts, feelings, and emotions and choose how you’re going to respond in a way that is positive for you and others.
Managing your emotions is a learned skill. Research, including a 2020 study, shows it begins forming in childhood through your relationship with your primary caregivers.
In fact, we are born without the ability to self-soothe. We rely on the nervous systems of our caregivers to restore balance, a process known as co-regulation, says Pauline Peck, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Santa Barbara, California.
“When we are distressed and dysregulated as babies, lying on our caregiver’s chest and syncing our breathing with theirs can help us calm down,” she explains.
“As we grow, the way our caregivers model emotional management, as well as the messages they give us about our emotions, can have a tremendous impact on how we understand our emotions and whether we believe we can handle them,” she adds.
Teenagers and adults who did not experience a supportive environment in early childhood may have a more difficult time with emotional regulation. If this sounds like you, don’t despair. Several methods can help.
When you feel overwhelmed with emotion, it’s not possible to think logically and feel your emotions at the same time due to the fight, flight, or freeze response kicking into high gear.
“Your pulse is likely speeding up, your blood flow to your gut and kidneys slows down, adrenaline starts to surge,” explains Noelle Benach, a licensed clinical professional counselor and psychotherapist in Baltimore.
“When you’re in this state, it’s difficult or impossible to process what other people are saying, let alone be aware of your own thoughts and emotions,” she adds. Basically, you’re in survival mode for a perceived threat.
Breathwork can help. Research from 2018 shows that deep breathing activates something called the parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest-and-digest” mode), which allows your body to unwind and restore balance.
Box breathing exercise
You may find it helpful to repeat this exercise five or more times or until relative calm is restored:
- inhale while counting to 4
- hold while counting to 4
- exhale while counting to 4
- hold while counting to 4
You can learn how to practice some other deep breathing exercises here.
When emotions are running high, it may feel difficult to stay present in your body or physical environment. If possible, try to tune into your five senses to stay grounded.
This can include any number of grounding strategies, like splashing cold water on your face, singing or humming, or using a technique called progressive muscle relaxation.
“My favorite exercise is called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique,” says Benach. The goal, she says, is to name:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste.
“Once you go through the exercise, you’ve provided yourself with some distraction from your stressor and allowed your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in,” she explains.
A 2019 study reported that a daily meditation practice of 13 minutes for 8 weeks helped improve peoples’ mood and emotional regulation, among other benefits.
“Mindfulness has been shown to actually change matter in your brain,” says Peck. “Our brains have neuroplasticity, which means that they can change and grow and adapt depending on how we use them.”
If meditation isn’t your thing, you can also look into yoga, tai chi, gardening, or forest bathing as a resource.
All too often, we label emotions as “negative” or “bad.” This can create an added layer of shame or guilt when you’re already feeling emotionally charged.
Instead, you might find it helpful to approach your feelings from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. This is called the “observer” mindset, or the state of allowing feelings to ebb and flow, like the tide.
When you notice your emotions arise, it can be useful to say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting? I’m experiencing anger. I allow it to be here, and I will get through this.”
If you’re having a challenging time figuring out exactly what you’re feeling, you may find it helpful to:
- use a feeling chart
- jot down your thoughts in a journal
- record yourself on your smartphone talking things through, then watch it back for clues
If irrational thoughts are causing your emotional distress, you may find it helpful to challenge them using cognitive reappraisal (changing the narrative).
“Sometimes, I have my clients put their negative or threatening thoughts on trial,” says Benach. “I’ll ask questions like: Is there any evidence that supports this? Are there times when this thought is not true? Will this matter a day/week/month/year from now?”
You don’t have to go through this alone. You may find it helpful to reach out to a therapist for support.
“Therapy is an amazing place to work on this because we cannot see the whole picture when we are activated. We are only seeing a sliver of it,” says Peck. “Your therapist can help you unpack your triggers and work on any unresolved trauma that may be contributing to them.”
Managing your emotions is a learned skill.
If you enjoy self-directed work, you may appreciate the “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook” by Matthew McKay.
While it may take some time and practice, it’s possible to self-regulate with different strategies, including deep breathing, accepting your emotions, and seeking support from a trained professional.