Emotional Regulation

Defined

Our emotions begin to take shape in infancy and continue to develop throughout the course of our lives. The most basic of emotions are experienced as bodily sensations, like the nausea we get from disgust or the fatigue that comes with sadness. Higher level emotions are blended feelings that demonstrate a capacity for imagination and empathy (Wheeler, 2022).

We each communicate our emotions through our affect, also called nonverbal behavior. This includes respiration rate, eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, and gestures. We also communicate emotions through the volume, tone, rhythm, cadence and speed of our voice (Wheeler, 2022). 

Emotions are understood to serve three critical functions in our day-to-day life. First, they provide us information about our environment and our relationship to that environment. Second, they guide our internal motivation to seek out achievement and avoid failure. Third, they inform us if we were successful or not in reaching our goals. Because of their profound impact on our lived experience, it is considered to be adaptive to listen to, and understand, our emotions (Miceli, 2018).

Emotions can also act as a portal through time, connecting a present day emotional trigger to our fundamental memories of that emotion. If a care giver gave us emotional support in our formative years, this portal may ground our present-day emotions in feelings of confidence, security and trust (Wheeler, 2022). 

For those without such past support, the portal may connect us to harsh, difficult experiences. It may remind us of harmful ideas and false beliefs about ourselves that originated within those painful events. Times when those we needed to trust were not trustworthy, and we felt anxious and hopeless (Wheeler, 2022). Without someone to model emotional regulation and provide selective reinforcement, we must take on the role of both teacher and learner (Thompson, 1991). 

As adults, our emotions result from a visceral (or gut feeling) reaction to external stimuli. They shape our physical states, and can produce long term distress if allowed to remain at highs and lows. Excessive emotional arousal creates an internal sense of chaos, while too little is marked by rigidity and a depletion of energy. When experiencing intense anxiety or when unable to self soothe, some of us may alternate between feeling overwhelming emotion and a dissociative state (Wheeler, 2022). 

Emotional regulation is the ability to control how our emotions fluctuate over time and how those emotions are expressed. This ability is heavily influenced by the context of our environment, our culture and our personality traits (Potter, 2020). Those successful at self-regulation are able to control both how they experience their emotions as well as the physical manifestations of emotion, even at the height of a trigger (Wheeler, 2022). 

Emotional regulation is critical to our ability to integrate emotions into the memories of past experiences. This act develops our personal history and life story, and allows us to heal from negative experiences. Healing in this context is the capacity to experience the full range of human emotions, without triggering a high or low event, and without defensiveness. Emotional stability is linked closely to overall physical health (Wheeler, 2022). 

It is important to acknowledge that we may not fully remember the fundamental memories that our emotions are tied to. To begin the emotional regulation learning process, it is not necessary to recall powerful memories exactly or seek out the objective, literal truth. Instead, we are working to soothe the emotions that surround our perception of the truth. Our focus is on what the experience felt like to us, as opposed to what exactly occurred (Wheeler, 2022).

Naming Emotions

Increasing our ability to emotionally regulate begins with an awareness of the full range of emotions we may be experiencing. Identifying confusing or difficult emotions gives us the power to understand and evaluate them. If we know what we feel, we are better able to regulate how we express that feeling (Wheeler, 2022). 

Start by considering the Feeling Wheel shown below (Gottman, 2007). It shows three tiers of emotion, moving from basic to complex. This graphic challenges us to make an effort to pin point our feelings using the emotion words in the outer tiers, as they are the most descriptive and helpful.

Even more emotion identifiers are below (Ackerman, 2019). These words describe a variety of complex emotions. By reading through this list, and the Feel Wheel above, we can increase our emotional vocabulary, making it easier to more accurately recognize and express what we're feeling.

  • Acceptance, admiration, adoration, amazement, amusement, awe, connectedness, curiosity, desire, anticipation, certainty, determination, eagerness, empathy, elation, happiness, euphoria, fearlessness, gratitude, excitement, hopefully, inspired, love, lust, moved, nostalgia, peacefulness, pleased, pride, relief, sappy, satisfaction, schadenfreude, validated, valued, wanderlust, vindicated.
  • Concern, despair, disappointment, disbelief, discouraged, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, doubt, emasculated, home sick, humbled, impatience, inadequate, indifference, insecurity, intimidated, irritation, loneliness, longing, moody, neglected, nervousness, annoyance, apprehension, conflicted, confusion, flustered, powerless, reluctance, remorse, skepticism, somberness, stunned, surprise, unappreciated, uncertainty, unease, vulnerable, wariness, wistful, worry.
  • Agitation, anguish, anxiety, appalled, betrayed, bitterness, contempt, defeat, defensiveness, defiant, denial, devastation, disgust, fear, envy, hatred, horror, hurt, panic, grief, guilt, dread, desperation, paranoia, pity, rage, regret, resentment, resignation, sadness, scorn, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, shock, smugness, terror, torment, vengeful, worthlessness, humiliation, obsessed, overwhelmed. 

Reading through these emotion words may bring up positive or negative thoughts or memories. If so, please focus on compassion for self and take a moment to explore what is being felt and how it is being felt.

Enhancing Self-Regulation

Self-regulation can help us minimize harmful events and avoid damaging experiences. It also encourages us to think clearly and act in a way that best exemplifies our core beliefs and values (Wheeler, 2022).

Effective regulation allows us to stay in our resilient zone, create a coherent sense of self (Wheeler, 2022) and reduce our future vulnerability to negative emotions and experiences (McCullough, 2001).

Consider the graphic below (Wheeler, 2022):

This tool is designed to help track emotional highs and lows over the course of one week. Each day for seven days, we can check in with ourselves and mark where our feelings fall on the spectrum of high to low. We can also review the emotions list and write down the words that relate to how we feel in that moment.

If something occurred that moved us into the high zone or low zone, we write a brief description of the event. We also try to identify the amount of time spent in the high zone or low zone after the event occurred. The goal here is to track how we are feeling and what triggers a strong emotional response from us. Once we better understand our big emotions, we can use our preferred coping strategies to self-soothe and return to our resilient zone.

The concept of the personal resiliency zone allows us to more easily visualize our emotional capacity for tolerating outside stressors. When we are within our resilient zone, our minds and bodies are at their most adaptable. We are in control of our physical and emotional responses, and are able to deal effectively with what occurs around us and to us (Wheeler, 2022).

When we are above our resiliency zone, we become anxious and hyper aroused. Our resistances and defenses take over, and we struggle to engage new information, integrate memories or gain insight into ourselves and our situation (Wheeler, 2022). 

If we are experiencing our low zone, we are less able to access our emotions or cognitive abilities. We cannot fully feel our bodily sensations or engage in self-regulatory or self-soothing thoughts and behaviors (Wheeler, 2022).  

How To Self-Regulate

If stuck in the high zone or low zone, consider the ideas listed below when trying to return to the resilient zone (Wheeler, 2022):

  • Open and close eyes slowly.
  • Prepare and consume tea, juice or water.
  • Seek out something comforting to touch or hold.
  • Look around and notice something we can see, smell, touch, hear or taste. Describe what we’re sensing out loud if possible. 
  • Notice the temperature of the room we are in and the feel of our clothing on our skin.
  • Name six of something we see - six colors, six chairs, or six pieces of paper for example.
  • Engage in deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Count backwards from twenty while walking slowly around the space. 
  • Touch something with hands or feet and feel muscles tense against it.
  • Focus on the points of our body making contact with the world around us.
  • Utilize another form of complementary or alternative therapy.

Attempt to avoid triggering stimuli when big emotions come up. Removing ourselves from a situation when overstimulated or experiencing overwhelming emotions gives us time to process what we are feeling and think through our options. This can prevent displaced or reactionary harm from occurring and making our situation worse.

When triggered, try to focus on the less emotional aspects of the event. Try to accept all emotions as they come without suppression or judgment. Here we can use the tool of radical acceptance, and more information is available on that strategy page.

We also can benefit from making a conscious effort to remain calm in our body to reduce our immediate physiological response (McRae, 2020). This is another learned skill, and one method for mastering it is through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is an extremely effective psychotherapy that clarifies problematic thoughts and feelings. It then helps us create alternative ways of thinking that work to improve our ability to cope and adapt while reinforcing more positive perspectives on ourselves, other people and the world we live in. Click here for this resource.

Consider visiting the physicality page for a list of strategies you can use to return to your body and work to expel the increased stress hormones that large emotions can generate. The physicality page is available by clicking here.

Emotional regulation is benefitted by the act of reappraisal. Once we have had our initial emotional reaction to a stimulus, we can stop and evaluate if that reaction was helpful or harmful (McRae, 2020). If the reaction was harmful, consider using humor to address the situation, redirect attention and inject some levity. For more information on humor, click here.

A while later, when things have cooled down - reevaluate desires from the moment, assess cooperation efforts with others, and compare the imagined future outcome at the time to the final outcome. If feeling anger on reappraisal, more strategies are available by clicking here. 

We can also benefit from setting boundaries and limits on interactions with an emotionally triggering situations or personalities. For more information on setting boundaries, click here.