Emotions can really get in the way of things. If we are overwhelmed with anger because we are stuck working from home and teaching our kids at the same time, the pressure might get to us so we say or do something we might regret. We might attempt to dampen these emotions with distraction or food or substances.
But our emotions are are also important sources of information. Sometimes we need to heed the warning signs; like the fuel light on a car, we can only ignore it for so long before that ‘running on empty’ turns into a grinding halt, where we cannot concentrate on work, we are unable to respond kindly and calmly to our kids, and our better half is packing a suitcase to go live with the inlaws.
There are better ways to cope, and this is where we turn to emotion regulation. This is a big area, and you probably don’t have time to read a whole book about it, so here are just six aspects of emotion regulation. Emotion regulation can involve -
1. Increasing present-focused emotion awareness – For example, rather than regretting the past or fearing the future, you are mindfully identifying those one-word emotions that are arising within: Anger, sadness, loneliness, or rejection, for example.
2. Developing flexibility in your thoughts and assumptions – For example, are you assuming that your partner knows that you need some space to breathe, and that it would be great if they could take the kids for a run around the park? Do you then generalize this present frustration, and overlook other times, when they have been able to check in with you and find out what you need, and respond lovingly to this?
3. Identify patterns of emotion avoidance – For example, you might have been raised in a household where tears were unwelcome, and so you quickly try and throw yourself into work, or a petty dispute with a friend, instead of allowing those tears to come.
4. Develop awareness and tolerance of bodily sensations - Mindfully noticing and describing your bodily sensations can often serve as a bridge to emotional awareness. We may say that we are “fine”, and yet when we think of our partner, we get a tightness in our throat or our stomach.
5. Gentle, gradual exposure to the things you avoid – How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t want to cry because I fear I will never stop”, or “If I let myself really feel this, I will become overwhelmed and never get out of this slump”? This is a fear-driven approach to emotions, and yet there is another way. I like to think of emotions as a wave – there is a build-up, peak, and then subside of an emotion. If we avoid that emotion when it is building up, we do not benefit from experiencing the subside of the emotion, and this experience can teach our brain that these emotions are not to be feared, and they are temporary.
Emotion regulation is hard if we listen to some of the myths that surround our emotions. As a psychotherapist I frequently hear these myths -
The truth is that there is no right or wrong about your emotions, they just exist. It is what you do with them that dictates the right or wrong of emotions, including anger.
It is important to pay attention to your emotions because they contain important information about what needs to change. But you need to balance this information with your rational mind.
You don’t have to be a hostage to your emotions; they can change by learning about emotion regulation. Part of this includes an awareness that emotions (given the right conditions) peak and then subside. You don't have to become overwhelmed by them.
You can change your emotions by developing skills in emotion regulation (as set out above), but you only need to regulate the ones that are unhelpful. This is a useful guide to what emotions are helpful and unhelpful -
I hope you find this useful.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Psychotherapist in New Jersey, and author of Beyond the Blue