Emotional Regulation: Skills to exert control over your emotional state

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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What is emotional dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is a mental health condition that can affect anyone who has difficulty being emotionally vulnerable and, in turn, struggles to cope with the negative energy that comes with it. Emotional dysregulation is characterized by a heightened fluctuation of mood states and a pervasive difficulty in managing rapid and often overwhelming mood fluctuations. The highs and lows can be experienced as anxiety, depression, anger outburst, crying bouts, abuse of substances, gambling, uncontrolled eating, and self-injurious behaviors. 

Between 1 to 3% of the United States population exhibits clinically significant mood instability which causes relationship conflicts, job instability and personal drama. 

When humans struggle to accept their lack of control over external situations or other people, they exert too much energy on their painful emotions. They experience perceived threat as real. A false alarm is activated in the brain which gives way to exaggerated reaction. 

Can people learn to control their emotions? 

Through life experience, personal growth, and appropriate treatment, people can master the necessary skills to regulate their emotions. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a specialized form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, is one type of treatment designed to help people develop a wide variety of skills necessary to emotionally regulate.

Once people learn how to regulate their central nervous system, they can refrain from the unhealthy behaviors that often accompany their feelings of being out of control. The moment they feel overwhelmed, they can shift their communication to a style that is in accordance to the version of themselves they wish to be. 

During this behavioral shift, people rewire the neurocircuitry of their brain by monitoring their emotionality. By paying close attention to changes in mood, and identifying the thoughts and emotions in question, people can slow down their impulse to act out or react. They can reframe the narrative around the situation and practice alternative coping mechanisms to self-soothe. They can choose to accept what they cannot control, shift their attention away from the offending stimuli, and move through their negative mood states in a healthy manner. 

New insights become the foundation of change. Through emotional regulation practices, people learn to stop trying to prove themselves as good enough. They learn to stop needing acknowledgment from others. They learn to foster self-love, self-care, and positivity. By disentangling the past from the present, we can unlearn unconscious and subconscious reactions, cultivate a new sense of control, and foster emotional intelligence.

Threats vs rewards

We are wired to ward off threats and seek out reward. Children that make mistakes and then lie about the mistake often do so to avoid the threat of punishment. If the lie is uncovered, the children may face punishment anyway, since the lying is considered a worse offense than the mistake. Unlike avoiding real danger like running from a ferocious animal, this child’s avoidance proves to be more dangerous in the long run. Unfortunately, we are not programmed from birth to cope with difficult life stressors. 

By stopping, thinking, and regulating the nervous system, the child can recognize the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, and in turn, act objectively. In fact, if the child takes responsibility for the mistake, he may find he is rewarded for being virtuous and learn that being imperfect is not a threat at all. 

However, if the child believes that making mistakes will be met with scorn or judges himself too harshly, he may feel immediately threatened at the thought of telling the truth. These strong feelings of fear can motivate a learned avoidance behavior. The fight or flight response is quickly activated and the ability to think rationally becomes hindered. This is when sudden emotional breakdowns occur. 

Value engagement 

As in the example above, when people react on impulse, they do not have time to properly assess their core value system. In fact, their sudden emotional reactivity can cause them to deviate from their moral beliefs. Acting in accordance with one’s core values is crucial to the process of maintaining a sense of control, self-respect and emotional security.

Skills to regulate emotions:

With sustained practice, the following are just a few emotional regulation skills that can help people respond appropriately instead of react impulsively. 

  • Pause. Stop. Think. Process. 

What is the likelihood you will regret your reaction? Is it possible you are missing some critical piece of information?

Take a moment. 90 seconds. That’s all it may take to temper yourself, cool down your internal thermostat, and emotionally reset. 

Ask yourself if there is a better way to handle this situation? Is there a more composed way to communicate your message? Can the situation wait until you can ground yourself effectively?

  • Identify your emotions and be accepting of those feelings

What are you feeling? Where in your body do you feel it? How strong is your emotion on a scale of 1 to 10? 

Validate the emotion and give yourself space to feel them. Understand that our reactions are hardwired for survival. Since your amygdala or ‘emotional brain’ works faster than your prefrontal cortex or ‘thinking brain’, know that your emotional reactions are coming from a mindless place.

Just because the overwhelming emotions are present does not mean that you must act on them or communicate them in that instance. Use your 90 seconds. Locate the stress. Deep breathe. Use mindfulness techniques.   Move through the tension. 

  • Reappraise the situation and reduce your triggers 

What happened immediately before you had a fluctuation in mood? What thoughts went through your mind that could have contributed to this mood state? Are there any other reasonable explanations that could explain your negative thought process? 

What is your ultimate goal? Is it to regulate your emotions or to be right? Is it to balance your mental state or is it to prove yourself? Recognize that your emotional state is dictated partially by choice. Ask yourself what you can control and what you cannot. Choose your battles wisely. 

  • Practice self-compassion 

By noticing that you are struggling emotionally, you can practice self-kindness and compassion instead of self-judgment. In turn, this practice can make you more compassionate to the difficult emotions of others. This shift in focus will help you channel an inner warmth that will better align with your personal values. 

Accepting your humanness and imperfections will allow you to better self-regulate your inner experiences. You will likely engage in more positive self-talk and recover from mistakes with more resiliency and less reactivity. 

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Are you or a loved one searching for DBT treatment in New York? Advanced Behavioral Health LLP offers DBT, CBT and other types of supportive therapy in the NYC area. Contact Advanced Behavioral Health to schedule your first appointment.

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