What Is Emotional Regulation

By Rachel Lustbader

Updated November 08, 2019

Reviewer Christine Baker

Have you ever been through an event that made you feel like your emotions were out of control? How about an experience that made you feel like your emotions were controlling you? In either case, did you wish that you had better control of your emotions?

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For example, maybe you had an interview that made you so nervous that you were not able to perform at your best and you did not get the job. Or, maybe you got so mad at your partner for making a simple mistake that you lashed out and hurt their feelings, making the situation even worse in the process. What if you could change that?

What if you could control your emotions and the actions that follow them? The good news is that you can through a process called emotional regulation.

What Is Emotional Regulation?

The National Rehabilitation Information Center states the emotional regulation definition as the process of recognizing and controlling feelings or reactions to feelings. In other words, emotional regulation is the management of your emotions and associated actions. We manage our emotions by becoming aware of them as they occur and learning how to take action to control them as well as how we react to them.

For example, you may find yourself in an emergency situation, like when someone nearby has been seriously injured. In a situation like that, you need to recognize if and when you start to feel a sense of panic. You can let that sense of panic spiral out of control and force you to react inappropriately or fail to act at all. Alternatively, you can actively control the sense of panic by taking deep breaths to reduce it and focusing on what you need to do to address the situation, like administering first aid and calling 911. But how exactly do you do that in the heat of the moment?

How can you consistently control your emotions no matter what the situation is? You can do it by practicing your emotional regulation skills on a regular basis so that you can improve those skills over time. But first, you have to work on your sense of self-awareness.

Self Awareness

Before you can practice your emotional regulation skills, you have to develop your sense of self-awareness to enable yourself to recognize the moments when the emotions begin to occur. Without that self-awareness, you may fail to notice when it happens.

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According to Harvard Business Review, "one of the best ways to increase self-awareness is to write down what you want to do and track your progress." One way to do this is to keep a journal. When you experience an emotion that you would like to control better in the future, you can write that experience down in the journal, along with all of the circumstances surrounding the event, and how you might go about maintaining better control in the future. Then, when you experience a similar event, you can look back at your journal and review your earlier entry to see how well you did in comparison. This will help you to see what you could have done better and to make any necessary adjustments going forward. But how exactly do you go about maintaining better control in the future?

You increase your ability to maintain control of your emotions in the future by working on developing your emotional regulation skills today. But what exactly are emotional regulation skills?

Emotional Regulation Skills

Emotional self-regulation is the process of using emotional regulation skills to control your own emotions. It requires you to be aware of your emotions and to take action then to control them. You may not realize it, but you already possess some of these skills. For example, you may find yourself taking deep breaths to calm your nerves before an interview or pausing before reacting when you begin to feel angry about something.

Some techniques can help you to practice your emotional regulation skills more consistently. For example, New York University recommends the STOPP technique:

  • S Don't act immediately.
  • T Take a deep breath.
  • O What am I thinking right now?
  • P Pull back. Zoom out. See the bigger picture.
  • P Practice your skills.

Have You Been Trying To Learn How To Regulate Your Emotions?
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This is just one of many emotional regulation activities that you can choose from to enable you to improve your control of the emotions that you experience and your actions that follow them. With practice and patience, you can learn which activities work best for you.

The key is to practice taking the appropriate action, by engaging in the right emotional self-regulation activity, after developing a strong sense of self-awareness so that you can consistently recognize the moment when you start to experience a particular emotion that you want to control. In other words, you have to learn how to recognize the emotion and then pause before reacting so that you can choose what happens next. One of the best ways to strengthen your ability to do this is through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

According to Psychology Today, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. It's a way of retraining your brain so that you are better able to get a handle on your emotions and control the actions that follow, instead of allowing your emotions to dictate what your actions will be.

For example, if someone cuts you off while you are driving on a major highway, CBT will enable you to avoid getting angry or, even worse, developing a sense of road rage that lingers for the rest of the day and can lead you to engage in risky behavior on the road. Instead, you will be able to recognize that people make mistakes, that the other driver may be having a really bad day (for example, they may have lost a loved one) and is not able to drive as well as you would like them to be. And you will be able to let it go and to then go on about your business without feeling any continuing negative emotions associated with the event or thinking about it obsessively for the rest of the day.

It takes a lot of practice to retrain the brain so that it does not always default to the same old pattern of negativity. However, if you are successful in retraining your brain through CBT, you will see positive results not only within yourself but also in your relationships with other people. If you find that you are having difficulty getting started with CBT, or with any part of the process, you may want to consider seeking help.

Seeking Help

Some people have a harder time regulating their emotions than others. Some people may even have an emotional regulation disorder that makes it particularly difficult. If you fall into this category, it may be beneficial for you to seek help so that you don't have to go it alone.

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Seeking the help of a therapist, like the ones that can be found at BetterHelp, can make the process of improving control of your emotions much easier. A therapist can provide you with access to the right tools that can enable you to make more improvement than you might be able to make on your own. For example, a therapist may provide you with an emotional regulation worksheet that can help you to identify your emotions and learn the right skills that you need to control them as well as the actions that follow them.

A therapist can also guide you through the process of improving your skills, step by step, and help you to monitor your progress, which can be invaluable in helping you to reach your goals.

"If your emotional abilities aren't in hand if you don't have self-awareness if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far." - Daniel Goleman

The emotions that we experience can have a profound impact on our lives, both personally and professionally. They can not only dominate our internal experience, but they can also impact our relationships with others. Because they are such an integral part of our lives, it is important for us to be able to control them. When we do, we improve our lives as well as the lives of those that are close to us.

Whether you choose to work through the process on your own or seek the help of a therapist, it is a worthwhile endeavor to develop a greater sense of awareness and practice your emotional regulation skills. Gaining control of your emotions can help you avoid unnecessary conflict and increase your chances of overall happiness and success. After all, it's better to control your emotions than it is to let your emotions control you.


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