We all feel emotions, both negative or positive, on a daily basis. Emotions can sometimes be scary, especially when they’re intense.
Most of us move along the spectrum between our best and our worst all day long, depending on what’s going on around us.
You may not have complete control of your emotions all the time, but you have more influence over how you feel than you think.
Emotion regulation is different for everyone. Some people can control how they feel better than others. For many people, regulating their emotions is much more difficult, sometimes due to painful experiences in the past, abuse, or trauma, and sometimes they just don’t know how.
Emotion regulation is one of the fastest-growing areas of psychology.
“Regarding the research findings, emotion regulation as a component of emotional intelligence is an important predictor of mental health, social relationship, academic achievement and work performance,” writes the authors of a study on Improving Emotion Regulation skills.
Many researchers define emotion regulation as the ability to enhance or reduce your emotions as needed. It’s the ability to know what you’re feeling and what to do about it in any environment.
“Emotion regulation means practicing something known as impulse control,” says Kris Lee, Ed.D., a professor at Northeastern University, behavioural science expert and author of Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World.
“When something happens, our brain’s automatic response is to be reactive. When our amygdala, the small part of our brain that regulates fight or flight is set off, we have to avoid taking the bait of our raw emotional reactions that make us want to overreact,” Kris says.
“When we buy time, we then have access to the frontal lobes of our brains, where we have access to reasoning, better problem solving and perspective. We never have to take the bait of primitive emotions,” she explains.
If you find yourself raising your voice or saying something snappish when you’re under stress, you’ve come face-to-face with the challenges of emotion regulation.
People who struggle to regulate their emotions react to relatively mild negative events in an emotionally exaggerated manner; they often shout, scream, accuse, or blame those around them, or engage in passive-aggressive behaviours that can disrupt relationships at home or at work.
If you don’t know how to deal with your emotions, life can be overwhelming. Recognizing that you always have a choice in how you respond — no matter how you feel — is at the heart of mastering emotion regulation.
Many people indulge in mindfulness, stoicism, attention management, digital minimalism, and therapy-as-performance-enhancer because they deal directly with our emotions, our attention, and our mental resilience — the very things that affect the quality of our thoughts, and how we respond to almost everything.
Name it to tame it
How are you feeling?
Which emotions are hardest for you to tolerate? Which emotions are easiest for you to tolerate?
Our emotional state profoundly influences the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, many of us are not aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what the impact may be.
Think about how you feel when you are at your worst. And how you feel when you are in control of your emotions.
What adjectives come to mind?
At our best, we feel focused, positive, happy, confident, calm, focused, enthusiastic, open and optimistic. That’s when we’re most productive and get along best with others.
At our worst, we’re typically experiencing the opposite feelings: stressed, anxious, self-doubt, impatience, irritability, and defensiveness. We tend to lose focus when we can’t regulate our emotions and things can quickly get out of hand.
To control or regulate your emotions in any environment, you need to notice, monitor, recognize and adapt emotions optimally according to situations.
Be ready to be vulnerable, as you take the first big first step in emotional wellness by paying attention to your sincere feelings.
Naming your emotions tends to lessen the burden of being at your worst. It puts you in control. The physician and psychiatrist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.”
Noticing and naming emotions gives you the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them. By noticing, you will be able to manage whatever is going on inside you more gracefully.
David Rock, one of the thought leaders in the human-performance coaching field, argues that when you are experiencing significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50 percent by noticing and naming your state.
In his book, “Your Brain at Work”, David says, “Without this ability to stand outside your experience, without self-awareness, you would have little ability to moderate and direct your behaviour moment to moment.”
Once you get better at naming and taming your emotions, rehearse desired reactions according to your unique stressors and triggers.
How do you want to react to a stressful situation? What do you want to stay when you are confronted with ideas you don’t like at work. When things are not going in your favour, how do you want to control the situation?
What behaviours do you tend to use to calm down stressful, frustrating or anxious feelings?
The ability to free yourself from the automatic flow of emotions at any time changes everything. “Research shows we are capable of building a positive emotional repertoire and redirecting our energies to help us from being stuck in negative emotional states,” Kris explains.
When you have the capacity to choose where to direct your attention, you will not be driven by your emotions. Emotional regulation is paramount to the quality of life because it affects almost every aspect of our lives.
Emotions play an important role in adaptation. When you get better at regulating your emotions, you can relate better with your loved ones, colleagues at work, and friends.
We all have different thresholds for coping, but you can continually grow and improve your capacity for reacting productively and positively in any environment.