Bring More Balance To Your Life With Emotion Regulation Skills
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
To be able to feel emotion is a real gift. And while it's pleasant to feel positive emotions, negative emotions can sometimes get the better of you. This makes you do things you regret, or what's worse, it keeps you from acting at all. It's a difficult way to live, but you can bring more balance into your life by using emotion regulation skills. Keep reading to learn what these are, and how you can use them in your day-to-day life.
What Are Emotions?
Emotions and feelings are two terms we often use interchangeably. However, they are not the same. So, what comes first - emotions or feelings? When you know the difference, it will be easier to use emotion regulation skills.
An emotion is how your subcortical brain regions respond to whatever's happening around you. Though they begin as a response in the brain, emotions are physical experiences felt throughout the body. You can think of them as somewhat primal and instinctual. And they're incredibly fast. It takes 100 milliseconds for the brain to react.
Feelings follow emotions. A good way to remember this is that "F" comes after "E" in the alphabet. Feelings occur in the neocortical brain regions, and they are a mental reaction to emotion. They assign meaning to the emotion itself.
Therefore, feelings tend to be subjective since how you feel depends on you and your experiences, along with your beliefs and memories. Compared to superfast emotions, feelings take 600 milliseconds to occur.
So, here's a quick recap. Your body reacts to external stimuli, giving you a bodily experience, or an emotion. Then, your mind gives meaning to your emotion with a feeling.
Emotions and feelings are something that people may resist talking about. After all, some associate them with wishy-washy, fluffy things. But if they automatically begin in the brain, this suggests that you need emotions. And knowing how to cope with them is where emotion regulation skills come in.
Why Are Emotions Important?
Emotions aren't just touchy-feely topics. Instead, they're incredibly useful. When an emotion pops up, and you feel it throughout your body, it's a signal, trying to tell you something. According to author Mary Lamia Ph.D., emotions "attempt to tell you if a situation is optimal, or not aligned with your goal."
And when you know whether something is good, bad or anything in between, it informs your decisions. As leading researcher and neurologist, Antonio Damasio, puts it, "feelings are not just the shady side of reason…they help us reach decisions as well."
You can think of your emotions as the cabinet members, advising you on the pros and cons of a given situation. This way, you can make an executive decision, and move through life with greater certainty.
If Emotions Are So Important, Why Should We Regulate Them?
We've just explored how emotions play a crucial role in our everyday life. They're bodily messengers that inform the thinking, rational mind. So, is it a good idea to regulate them?
The answer is an emphatic, Yes! You see, even though emotions are useful and necessary, that doesn't mean they're only and always useful and necessary. Like any other aspect of health and wellness, it's all about balance.
For example, hormones play a huge role in your physical, emotional and psychological well-being. But if they're disrupted or imbalanced, a slew of symptoms follows. Here's a simpler example: milk is a healthy source of calcium. But if your diet consists primarily of milk, it's safe to say that your diet is out of hand, imbalanced, and your body will suffer without adequate nutrition.
Emotions are no different. When an emotion gives us a signal, we can acknowledge it and move on with the rest of our life. But when emotions overtake us, like unruly weeds in a garden we can become servants to our emotions, always at their mercy.
Therefore, emotion regulation skills are incredibly useful to make the most of emotions without letting them make the most of us.
Regulating Emotions Is Not The Same As Suppressing Emotions
Usually, when you're suppressing emotions, it's because you believe you shouldn't be feeling them. Maybe instead of unhappiness, you think you should have a stiff upper lip. Maybe instead of anger, you want to be peaceful and serene.
There's nothing wrong with not liking negative emotions. And in a way, our attempt to suppress them is a misguided way to feel better.
The only problem is that suppressing emotions doesn't help you feel better. Remember that emotions are signals, and they act like a fire alarm, warning you that something's not quite right. But if you mute the alarm, you won't get to the root of the problem, and it will probably pop up again.
That's because suppressed emotions don't just disappear simply because we don't want to deal with 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.
Emotions show up at specific times and for very specific reasons. If we choose not to acknowledge them and suppress them instead, we only make matters worse. So, it's not a good idea to suppress emotions.
But how is this different from regulating emotions?
When you regulate emotions, you never ignore them. In fact, you do just the opposite. When you regulate emotions, you acknowledge both their presence and their validity. Then, you listen to what the emotional message is, and decide the best way to incorporate this message into your actions.
In a way, regulating emotions is how you take an empowered position in relationship to your emotions. So, let's find out exactly what emotion regulation skills are and how you can start using them to cultivate balance and equanimity in your life.
What Are 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 1980's to help individuals with borderline personality disorder.
Since then, research has found that the four skills of DBT can successfully treat individuals with depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, as well as eating disorders, including bulimia and binge-eating.
However, even if you don't struggle with the illnesses mentioned above, you can still reap the benefits of emotion regulation skills. Everyone experiences emotions, and as you'll remember, 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. But with emotion regulation skills, individuals learned to manage and even change their emotions - especially negative ones - in a responsible, respectful way.
These skills also help individuals make better decisions, change their behavior and ultimately increase positive emotions.
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. So, instead of being a victim of whatever emotion you feel, you can step back, observe it and choose how you want to act.
- Opposite Actions
Feeling negative emotions, like anger and sadness, can lead people to fight or withdraw, respectively. These are common actions that follow these two emotions.
But it's possible to trade these actions with opposite 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 doesn't mean you're 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.
- Fact Checking
Think back to a time when you overreacted. In retrospect, it's easy to see how your reaction didn't match the situation. That's because you no longer feel that intense emotion. At the moment though, it's more difficult to be level-headed.
However, with fact checking, you give yourself a moment to observe and analyze the situation right when you're feeling the intense emotion, rather than when it's all over with.
Useful questions to ask when your fact checking your emotion are:
- 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. And that's not because emotions are bad. It's just that due to our life situation 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 emotion needs to be so strong.
The mind-body connection greatly impacts how-how we manage and cope with life. Unhealthy thinking patterns can lead 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
- Pay Attention to the Positive
For better or for worse, we tend to focus on the negative things that happen to us, rather than all the positive moments we experience. But this is a thought pattern and habit that we can intercept and change.
When you notice that you're thinking about something negative, acknowledge it, but then actively search through your memory to find the positive things that happened, too.
In addition to focusing on positive thoughts and memories, you can also cultivate positivity in your life. If you enjoy cooking, try to make more yummy homemade meals for yourself. If you enjoy visiting your favorite cafe, make it a point to go there regularly. If there's something on your bucket list that you keep putting off, perhaps now is a great time to give it a try.
As you can see, emotions are so important to a balanced, healthy life. And it's a good idea to welcome them into your life. But sometimes, they get the better of us and make us do things that aren't good for us in the long run. But instead of shunning and suppressing emotion, consider trying these emotion regulation skills. It's a respectful, powerful way to manage and make the most out of every emotion.