What Is Emotional Regulation
By Alisen Boada
Updated November 20, 2019
Reviewer Christine Baker
Have you ever been through an event that made you feel like your emotions were out of control? How about a situation that made you feel like your emotions were controlling you? This might be a moment of road rage taking over when someone cuts you off in traffic or saying something hurtful in the heat of an argument. In either case, do you wish that you had better control of your emotions?
The National Rehabilitation Information Center defines emotional regulation 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. It may not feel like it, but we always have a choice in how we respond to our emotions. Emotional regulation allows us to use different skills to guide our reactions to powerful feelings like anger and anxiety. If you feel like you struggle with managing strong emotions, a few day-to-day practices can help put you back in the driver's seat during difficult situations.
It takes practice, but the more we learn to notice and accept our emotions, the more mindfully we can react to them. Studies have found that practicing healthy emotional regulation skills, such as accepting your feelings or changing your outlook, supports our mental well-being and helps us perform better at work and school.
Difficulty regulating emotions can also stem from underlying health conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Skill-building treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), are very effective for learning new ways to manage overwhelming feelings in a safe way. For example, a 2014 study found that DBT helped 77% of participants overcome the emotional challenges related to BPD. When techniques don't work or you have an underlying condition, seeing a therapist can give you the help you need.
How We Learn Emotional Regulation
We experience emotions our entire lives, but emotional regulation is not an ability we are born with. As babies, we cry uncontrollably or throw tantrums because we yet haven't learned what to do with overwhelming feelings. Our parents and caretakers are the first guides that show us how our emotions work and what to do with them. When we find it difficult to regulate our emotions once we've grown up, it may be because we've never actually been taught how; painful childhood experiences, abuse, or traumatic events can also affect our ability to recognize and manage what we are feeling.
Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, but our experiences with them can be difficult or painful. When we don't know how to deal with distress, we might turn to unhelpful patterns- avoiding or fixating on negative emotions- without realizing.
The first step in growing healthy skills is to build our sense of self-awareness. We need to know what we are feeling in order to choose a response to it. According to one of the leading theories about emotional regulation, called the process model, our feelings are created through a series of five events- the situation, our attention, our interpretation, our emotional response, and our actions. First, there is a situation; something about it grabs our attention; we interpret what it means to us; we have an emotional response, and we act. Different emotional regulation skills let us change what we do at different points in that process.
Let's go back to road rage as an example:
- Situation: When we are stuck in traffic, we might be more likely to get angry if we are running late to work. We can change this situation by choosing to leave the house with enough time to not feel rushed.
- Attention: When we are in this situation, we fixate on the slowness of the traffic. We can change the focus of our attention along the drive to work; we can use the downtime to catch up with a favorite podcast.
- Interpret: When someone cuts us off, we choose to see them as an irresponsible driver out to ruin our day. Instead, we can view them as someone who made a mistake and is also just trying to get to work.
- Emotional response: Based on the first interpretation, we become angry- sometimes the reactions feels out of control. However, we could choose to feel relieved things didn't turn out worse and that no one was hurt.
- Action: It's fine to experience anger, but you can then choose to let this emotion influence your behavior for the day or to acknowledge your frustration while finding a way to soothe it.
Building our sense of self-awareness can help us see at what point of the process we might be at and what we can do to make things better for ourselves.
Types of Emotional Regulation Skills
Emotions like anger and anxiety are part of our body's instinctive responses to keep us safe from dangerous situations. Even if you aren't in bodily danger, your self-worth can feel at risk when someone treats you poorly or when you need to do something you're not confident about. We might not always interpret a situation accurately, but that doesn't take away from the sense of danger we feel we are in. What we can choose is how to make ourselves feel safe again- without giving in to our first "fight or flight" impulse. The following skills can help us take a step back from our first reactions to a difficult event and gauge how to put our best foot forward.
- Label Emotions
It may seem simple, but knowing how to label emotions is a great place to start building self-awareness. Even if we don't have trouble noticing when we're having an intense feeling, we may struggle with describing exactly what it is. It's good to be able to name emotions in broad strokes, like "anger," but there can sometimes be more to what we are feeling. Are you also feeling heartbroken? Excluded? Confused?
Being able to clearly communicate an emotion, even just to yourself, can help guide how to relieve it. Different emotions call for different needs. Working out which emotions are truly behind catch-all labels like stress- for example, anxiety or grief- improves our ability to handle them. Using a list of emotions as a reference can help build your emotional vocabulary and get to the root of what you're feeling. Journaling or writing down these details and tracking how your emotions change over time can put you more in touch with what you are experiencing in the moment in order to determine what helps you feel better.
- Acceptance & Reappraisal
Another set of useful emotional regulation skills involves learning to accept difficult emotions or to change your outlook on them- also known as reappraisal. The foundation of both skills is pausing to rethink what you are truly feeling.
Acceptance: When we accept our emotions, we allow ourselves to have powerful negative feelings without adding things like shame; the addition of these negative feelings might lead to us feeling even worse. Choosing not to avoid these feelings also helps us experience them without making them appear more overwhelming than they actually are. Accepting can be challenging at first, but it will eventually teach you that emotions cannot harm you.
Reappraisal: Looking back at the process model, how we interpret or appraise a situation determines how we will respond to it emotionally. For example, if someone doesn't text you back right away, you can either interpret that to mean they are ignoring you, which might lead you to feel hurt, or that they are busy. Reappraisal lets us change our outlook on a situation; giving us the opportunity to find an emotional response that works best for our needs and goals.
Mindfulness is being fully aware and present in your current situation. Practicing mindfulness teaches us to become aware of what's happening in the moment, which is a great place to start learning both of these skills. Rather than worrying about what happened before the situation started or how it will ruin your day, you seek to analyze the here and now. You can answer questions like "what am I feeling?" and "why?" It involves noticing thoughts and emotions without judging them or pushing them away.
- CBT & DBT
Many of these skills are part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a process that teaches how to change the unhelpful thought patterns that influence us. One way of putting these skills in action is using the STOPP technique. When faced with a difficult situation, try the following steps:
S - Stop: Don't act immediately.
T - Take a deep breath.
O - Observe: What am I thinking right now?
P - Pull back: What's the bigger picture?
P - Practice what's best for the situation.
This gives you a moment to check what part of the emotion process you are in and break the pattern of reactions you might be used to. Once you've paused, you get to decide if there is a better way to respond. Can you put yourself in a safer situation? Can you focus on something more enjoyable in the moment? Can you change your view of what's happening? Can you hold your emotional response without being overwhelmed by it?
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another form of treatment to help you manage symptoms related to emotional regulation. You can explore DBT-related books and worksheets, but DBT often works best as a combination of group therapy and individual treatment. In addition to emotional regulation, DBT teaches a set of core skills that include:
Mindfulness: Being fully aware and present
Distress Tolerance: Tolerating difficult or uncomfortable situations
Interpersonal Effectiveness: Asking for what you want and saying "no" when you need to
Finding a local DBT support group gives you an opportunity to learn and practice these skills with other people who understand your experience.
BetterHelp Is A Place To Start
If you've never been shown a healthy way to regulate emotions, it can be challenging at first to get in touch with what you are feeling. If you're not sure where to start, a CBT- or DBT-trained therapist is a great resource for a bit of guidance. The licensed counselors available on BetterHelp can not only provide tools and resources for building new skills, but can help you stay on track, answer any questions you may have, and monitor your progress.
There's no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your day to drive to an appointment - you may access BetterHelp from the comfort and privacy of your own home or wherever you have an internet connection. You can even choose how you communicate with your counselor- video, call, text, or chat- to personalize your sessions and feel as comfortable as possible. Other people have gotten help regulating their emotions; read some of their reviews below.
"At first I was unsure about the program but after seeing it advertised multiple times I decided to give it a shot. I was matched in a matter of hours and have been amazed at the connection I feel I have with Kim. In a very short amount of time she was able to see the real root of my issues and why I cope, process, and deal with emotions and situations the way I do. She has provided very useful worksheets and suggested amazing reading material. In looking into the things she has suggested, I have been able to show my friends and loved ones how accurate it is and a lot of them have began to consider looking into BetterHelp themselves! I could go on and on. I have nothing but good things to say! Highly recommend BetterHelp and Kim!"
"Steve is amazing and does a good job at making this seem like less of a counseling session and more of a conversation between friends. He helped me talk through my anger issues and road rage and gave me lots of problem solving tools. I highly recommend him!"
Emotional regulation is not about putting your emotions under lock and key but managing how they affect your behavior. Learning to guide your reactions prevents stressful situations from getting the best of you, while allowing you to stay true to yourself. Whether you explore these skills on your own or with the help of a therapist, CBT and DBT resources can give you an extra hand toward managing emotions through life's difficult moments. With the right tools, a lack of control over your emotions doesn't have to hold you back. Take the first step today.