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What is emotional regulation?

The term “emotional regulation” has become a bit of a buzz word recently – but, like many other psychological concepts (mental health, wellbeing, resilience, to name just a few!), it’s rarely defined clearly in popular media. We may be aware that emotional regulation is important, and that we don’t want to be dysregulated, but what does it really mean, and how can we improve it? This blog clears up the confusion and offers 3 key strategies to improve emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is the ability to recognise or identify, respond to, manage and accept or tolerate emotions. It’s an important skill, because it helps us to deal with strong emotions in the moment – when our logical brain might struggle to rationalise a situation and our emotional brain takes over. Emotional regulation helps us to manage strong, and often negative emotions, as they are occurring, enabling us to pause before acting, stay calmer in the face of pressure and challenges, better manage difficult situations, and improve our ability to express our needs and ask for help. It can be a powerful tool when we struggle with anxiety, low mood, stress, and frustration.

How do you feel?

Being able to identify and describe our emotions is a good start when it comes to improving emotional regulation. This is because the more specific we are in describing or recognising emotions, the better placed we are to manage that exact, specific feeling. Wilcox’s (1982) Feeling Wheel is a good place to start is it breaks down 6 main emotions into their component parts.

Sometimes when we’re really struggling, we can almost feel numb, as if we’ve switched off the emotional part of ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with difficult emotions. But if we don’t face them, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn that emotions peak and then dissipate, that they sometimes pass entirely, and that we can tolerate them. In fact, although it’s uncomfortable sitting with strong emotions, the more we avoid it, the more we lose confidence in our ability to handle strong feelings. So, next time you are experiencing a strong negative emotion, try one of the following strategies instead.

1.       Soothe the nervous system

When we are experiencing strong emotions, we need to calm our nervous systems, because they are often activated to an unhelpful degree. For example, when we experience performance anxiety, we may feel extremely nervous as we are in fight or flight mode. But this is not a helpful state to be in, as there isn’t a physical threat to our safety, so we need to try and get out of the fight or flight response and soothe the nervous system. One quick and easy way of doing this is to use deep breathing. There are lots of different types of breathing that you can try (a Google or YouTube search will give you lots of results!), but two key points apply: breath deeply into the belly rather than up high in the chest; and lengthen the outbreath. Making the outbreath longer than the inbreath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight or flight response – it’s our “rest and digest” system. This is how our bodies recover and conserve energy, so consider it a reset for your nervous system.

Another way to calm the nervous system is by creating a self-soothing box – have a read of this blog for some tips and ideas.

2.       Use imagery

If you respond well to imagery and visualisation – for instance, if you enjoy using images when in dance class or when devising choreography – then this metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (which inspired the image for this blog!) might work for you.

Imagine that your mind is the sky. Your thoughts and feelings are the weather. Sometimes the weather is sunny and bright, other times calm and still, other times there is thunder and lightning. But the sky remains unchanged – it always has room for the weather, and the weather cannot hurt the sky. The weather always changes and moves on.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy employs many useful images and metaphors to help us understand complex psychological concepts. The mind as sky metaphor can help us to become more present and better able to observe our emotions without judgement, and understand that they will change, rather than get too caught up in trying to analyse or modify them. Sometimes accepting this simple idea can feel like quite a relief.

3.       Try mindfulness

Finally, mindfulness is a really good way of regulating emotions in the present moment. One of my favourite mindfulness activities is the 54321 technique, which is a quick and simple way to feel grounded, pay attention to the present moment, and avoid spiralling thoughts. It gives you the opportunity to pause before responding to whatever challenge you are facing. All you have to do is identify:

5 things you can see

4 things you can feel

3 things you can hear

2 things you can smell

1 thing you can taste

You can do this very quickly and subtly – for example, you don’t have to start walking around the room touching things! It might instead be feeling your feet against the floor, fabric against your skin, etc. Don’t worry too much about the smell and taste as these can be quite tricky, but often simply going through the first 3 items in the list can be enough to return you to the present moment.

It starts with awareness

If you have found these strategies helpful, and are looking for more ideas, you could try practicing self-compassion, making time for things you enjoy, and cultivating gratitude. Just remember that everybody experiences and manages their emotions differently, and there may be times when we find it easier to deal with emotions than others. It’s also helpful to remember that everyone struggles to manage their emotions, especially during times of stress and pressure. Like with any other skill, emotional regulation strategies take time and consistent practice, but as always in psychology, awareness is the first step.


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