Emotion Regulation Skills For Emotional Balance
Emotions can be complicated, and they're one of the most fundamental things that psychologists address in therapy. Rollo May is a well-known psychologist who has made significant contributions to the study of emotions. One of the most common methods psychologists use to help their patients cope with difficult emotions is teaching emotional regulation techniques. To better understand this method of treatment, it helps to know what emotions are, why we react to them, and how to develop emotional regulation skills.
Emotions Vs. Feelings Vs. Mood
Emotions, feelings, and mood are terms we often use interchangeably in everyday life. There are real differences between them, however, and our relationships with them differ as well. Understanding these differences can help us develop emotional control and employ coping strategies to manage intense emotions and their impact on our mental health issues.
Emotions arise before feelings and mood, involving our autonomic nervous system. Emotion is influenced and regulated by chemicals released in our brains as a response to a trigger. Once the brain has encountered the trigger, chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin activate and travel throughout the body impacting the nervous system and producing emotional reactions.
As our minds process our emotions, feelings follow, requiring us to manage emotions effectively. Feelings tend to be subjective since how you feel depends on your experiences, along with your beliefs and memories. Feelings are often more complicated in nature than emotions, and they may manifest as the result of a mix of triggered multiple emotions. Feelings usually last longer than emotions.
Mood is influenced by our emotions and feelings, including positive emotions and negative feelings. It isn’t necessarily related directly to a trigger but to a variety of stimuli, such as a person’s physiology, environment, and mental state. Moods can fluctuate in intensity and can last for days, requiring self awareness to manage them effectively.
Why Emotional Regulation Is Sometimes Necessary
Emotions are incredibly useful to us physiologically, acting as a signal to communicate something in the present moment. They can inform us about whether a situation, relationship, trigger, etc., is beneficial or harmful to our goals or to us as individuals.
When we have received information from our emotions about whether a trigger is good, bad, or in between, it influences the choices we make. Since emotions act as bodily messengers that inform the thinking and rational mind, one may assume that regulating them isn’t beneficial.
Emotions can be useful and necessary in some situations, but they can be a detriment in others, leading to emotion dysregulation and the need for practicing mindfulness to maintain emotional balance.
Situations like this demonstrate how emotion regulation can be beneficial for keeping our emotions balanced, proportionate to our experience, and manageable.
Regulating Emotions Vs. Suppressing Emotions
Often, when someone attempts to suppress their emotions, it's because they believe they shouldn't be feeling them. It’s normal to dislike negative emotions, and in a way, the attempt to suppress them may be a sort of coping device.
But suppressing emotions doesn’t quell them, especially not in the long run. Remember that emotions are signals that warn us that something's not quite right. But if you mute the signal, you won't get to the root of the problem, and it will likely pop up again.
That's because suppressed emotions don't disappear simply because we don't want them. Instead, they find a place within the body and reside there, causing problems as time goes on. This can include weight gain, stress, mental and physical illness, digestive problems, and much more. Learning to identify multiple emotions and incorporating healthy coping strategies can lead to a better stress response and overall emotional well-being.
But how is this different from regulating emotions? When you regulate emotions and build emotional regulation skills, you don’t ignore them; you acknowledge both their presence and their validity in your emotional experience. Then, you listen to what the emotional message is and decide the best way to incorporate this message into your actions.
Emotion Regulation Skills
Emotion regulation skills are one of the four therapeutic skills that make up dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT consists of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. These therapeutic skills were created in the 1980s to help individuals with borderline personality disorder and other mental health issues, like depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse, better regulate their emotions and manage physical symptoms.
Since then, research has found that the four skills of dialectical behavioral therapy can successfully treat individuals with eating disorders, including bulimia and binge eating.
Even if you don't struggle with the illnesses mentioned above, you can still reap the benefits of emotion regulation skills by fostering positive feelings and learning to practice self compassion. Everyone experiences emotions, and for most, they happen instantaneously and can be very strong.
If left unchecked, emotions can lead us to act and react in ways that aren't healthy, such as self harm. But with emotion regulation skills, individuals learn to manage their emotions - especially negative ones - in a responsible, respectful way.
Top Emotion Regulation Skills
Once you experience an emotion, you act or react - sometimes immediately and without thinking about it. But learning the following emotion regulation skills can give you more choices.
Feeling negative emotions, like anger and sadness, can lead people to fight or withdraw, respectively. But it's possible to trade these actions for more productive ones. For example, instead of fighting or arguing, consider the opposite action: talking quietly and behaving with greater respect.
If you experience sadness, you may want to withdraw and close yourself off. But the opposite action is to visit friends, or at least communicate with them.
Doing opposite actions like these can help to change the original emotion, but that isn’t the same as ignoring how you feel. It just gives you an opportunity to feel a different emotion. That can lead to different actions, which can also provide a healthy solution to the original problem.
When you think back to a time when you overreacted about something, it’s often easy to see in retrospect how the reaction didn't match the situation. That's because you no longer feel that intense emotion, and your parasympathetic nervous system has calmed you down. It’s more difficult to be level-headed in the moment.
With fact-checking, you can take a moment to observe and analyze the situation as you're feeling the intense emotion rather than after it’s passed.
Some useful questions to ask when your fact checking your emotion include:
What is triggering this emotion? (Identity what's happening)
How am I interpreting this situation? (Identity what meaning your mind is assigning to the trigger)
Am I making assumptions? (Can you prove that your interpretation is true?)
Does the emotion I'm feeling, and the intensity of it, match with the facts? Or is my emotion overreacting?
When you fact-check the situation, you're also putting a gentle check on your emotions. That isn’t because the emotions are bad; it’s just that due to our life situations and personal histories, the intensity of our emotions might not always match the situation. In fact-checking, you're not saying that you shouldn't feel a certain way. It's just asking whether the reaction to the emotion fits the situation.
Learn To Express Your Emotions Productively
The mind-body connection greatly impacts how we manage and cope with life. Unhealthy thinking patterns can lead to physical problems and vice versa. So, taking good care of your physical health is an important emotion regulation skill.
The acronym P.E.A.S.E. can help you apply this skill to your life.
P = treat physical illness
E = eat healthy
A = avoid mood-altering drugs
S = sleep well
E = exercise
Online Therapy For Emotional Balance
If you think you need assistance managing your emotional responses, speaking with a therapist is a great way to begin. A therapist experienced with using DBT can develop a treatment plan specific to your needs and teach you skills that you can carry forward to use daily.
Many people find barriers to treatment that keep them from getting help. Limited availability to attend sessions, difficulty commuting to and from the therapist’s office, and discomfort around encountering other individuals in the psychologist’s office are a few things that deter people from speaking to a therapist.
One of the most successful ways to overcome these barriers and others is to speak to a therapist online. Online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy for treating disorders like anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorders, and others where DBT is a potential course of treatment.
Platforms like BetterHelp allow patients to speak with licensed mental health professionals online anytime, anywhere with an internet connection. And online therapy is often more affordable and convenient than in-person therapy sessions.
Commonly Asked Questions:
Why is emotion regulation important?
Emotional regulation can increase our long-term well-being and help us develop healthier communication in relationships. When someone can build their emotional regulation skills, they can better anticipate problems, react in ways that are appropriate, and refrain from escalating issues or overreacting to the point of regret. It helps people to understand their emotions and communicate in healthier ways.
What causes poor emotional regulation?
Many people who have poor emotional self-regulation, otherwise known as dysregulation, have a past of trauma either from childhood or other negative experiences with loved ones.
This is often coupled with issues of attachment that may be related to child development. If a child grows up without proper care or endures abuse, they may develop poor emotion regulation strategies or unhealthy self-soothing practices.
People who have borderline personality disorder tend to struggle to regulate emotions and they might act on impulse with destructive behaviors when stressed.
What does emotional regulation look like?
Emotional regulation occurs when someone takes time to understand their emotional triggers before reacting. Accepting your emotions, identifying them, and understanding the best way to react is emotional regulation. At the moment, taking time to think through a problem and identify the appropriate reaction is a skill that you can work on developing. When someone has an emotional regulation disorder or experiences emotional dysregulation, they may be quick to have an emotional response that doesn’t match the situation.
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