Dr. Sarah Davies
Emotional Regulation Skills
Our Emotions & Skills to Regulate Them.
Humans will experience a wide range of emotions and depending on our experiences and the environment around us. Our emotions are very useful in communicating our preferences, when we feel our boundaries have been crossed, when we feel we are in danger. They can help to motivate us and steer us towards choices in line with our values. Emotions can sometimes be challenging, difficult to name, process and can lead us to engage in harmful, maladaptive ways to cope, such as self-harm and substance misuse or distractions or avoiding emotions altogether.
During our early life experiences, we rely on our caregivers, for example, a parental figure (this does not have to be a biological parent) in meeting our physical, social and emotional needs. Our caregivers can support us to name emotions and to show us how to soothe ourselves when experiencing distress. However, if we had an emotionally absent caregiver who was unable to meet and support our emotional needs consistently or compassionately enough as a child, we may have difficulties in regulating our emotions as adults.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993) describes a range of skills that can be useful in supporting us to identify, soothe and regulate our emotions.
Have you ever felt that you can be completely rational and logical one moment and then feel completely overwhelmed by emotions the next? These mindsets are known as our ‘emotional mind’ and our ‘reasonable mind’. The emotional mind can tell us how we feel (such as anxiety, anger, disgust, fear and happiness) and our emotional mind approaches experiences more reactively. In contrast, our rational mind uses facts, logic, past experiences and reasoning to approach experiences.
Both mindsets are important and when we combine them together, we experience ‘wise mind’, which approaches experiences or decisions with emotions and responsibility. Our wise mind may be associated as a “gut feeling”.
Using mindfulness can support us to access our wise mind by drawing our attention and awareness to the present moment. Take a look at mindful NOW:
Notice – Pause where you are and focus on your attention right now. Notice what you are doing right now in this moment, pause and try to notice what thoughts or feelings you may be having.
Observe – say to yourself what you are doing once you have noticed this. Try and say this to yourself, either out loud or in your own mind, “I am breathing”, “I am sitting”, “I am walking” and “I am listening”. Just notice what you notice.
Wise Mind – Choose your focus. Ask yourself “where shall I focus my attention now?”, “what shall I focus on now?” Or to continue mindfully.
Soothing Difficult Emotions
Fortunately our emotions don’t last forever, and eventually whatever emotion we’re experiencing will shift. Another emotion may replace it. However, experiencing intense and painful emotions can be difficult to manage, so here are some skills to practise to to try to help regulate such emotions:
Temperature – when we’re feeling distressed, our bodies can either feel very hot or very cold (if we feel low or disconnected from our bodies). Try counteracting this with either a cold shower if you’re feeling hot or a warm bath if you’re feeling cold.
Intense Exercise – do intense exercise to match your intense emotion. Run on the spot if you can, or do jumping jacks, squats or push ups until you’re tired. Intense exercise can increase our oxygen flow which helps to decrease our stress levels too.
Paced Breathing – if you already use any breathing techniques you can do those here. Alternatively, you can try the ‘box breathing technique’. Slowly and deeply inhale through your nose for the count of four. Hold your breathe for another slow count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four. Hold your breathe again, for the same slow count of four. Repeat this.
Paired Muscle Relaxation – Focus on a group of muscles, such as the muscles in your legs. Tighten and squeeze the muscles as much as you can for five seconds. Then let go of the tension. Let the muscles relax, and this will help you to relax too. Try this with other paired muscles throughout your body.
Grounding techniques, such as dropping the anchor and the 5-4-3-2-1 technique can aid
us to regulate difficult emotions. You can even create a ‘self-soothe box’ or bag containing your grounding materials, such as positive or motivational notes, fluffy socks, essential oils and sour sweets. You can decorate your self-soothe box however you like, but just remember to have it in a handy place for easy access.
Choosing Helpful Behaviours
There is a difference between having an emotion and acting on that emotion. If we experience overwhelming emotions it may be difficult to choose behaviours that are helpful for reducing our distress in the here and now and the future. Try these skills below:
Accept – we cannot get rid of our emotions, try to be willing to radically accept them. Remember that feelings are normal responses and that they will pass. Try to control what you can and put aside what you can’t.
Choose – what do you believe is important towards your life directions? Can you commit to your values that fit this situation? Try to choose activities that are in line with your value and life directions.
Take Action! – Do the best thing for you right in that moment. I’m a big fan of ‘what is right, right now’ - that is helpful and healthy.
For example, completing opposite actions or activities can help us to temporarily distract from an emotion experience. For example, if you’re feeling low try watching a comedy, if you’re feeling angry do something kind for another person – for example help cook dinner or check in with a friend.
Emotions are neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they just are. They are really key to telling us and our bodies how we feel in situations and our environment. Our feelings are onside. Utilising emotion regulation skills can empower us to navigate difficult, painful and overwhelming emotions. These skills can also motivate us to choose helpful behaviours that can support our emotional wellbeing in the here and now and the future.
Remember that feelings do not last. So try to remind yourself of that when the feelings are difficult and enjoy the more positive feelings when they present… as neither lasts forever.
Everything flows. Nothing is fixed – Heraclitus.