Emotion regulation skills allow us to effectively cope with our emotional reactions. While we cannot always maintain control over what we feel, we have total control over how we choose to respond to those feelings. The first step to gaining greater control over your emotions begins with learning how to recognize emotions and their effects on your life.
Without the ability to notice, identify, and make meaning of an emotional response, we are left feeling without a sense of agency – at the whim of our surroundings. This can lead to a belief that others can “make” you feel certain ways, seemingly without your consent. This feeling is much like being cast about in a violent ocean with little more than a single oar. Powerless.
Effective Emotion Regulation Strategies
How do we overcome the irrational belief that others have the power to “make” us emotionally react? It starts with learning the best ways to regulate emotions. Below are some excellent strategies for regulating emotion. The following strategies are specifically endorsed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, director of the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics (BRTC) and creator of DBT. In addition, strategies will included from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007) in tomorrow’ post, Top 10 Ways to Regulate Emotions – Part Two.
(1) Identifying and Labeling Affect
The first step to emotion regulation involves learning how to recognize and label current emotions. The inherent complexity to emotional processes makes this deceptively difficult. The process of identifying emotions requires the ability to both observe/notice one’s own responses as well as to accurately describe the context of the emotional occurrence.
Try focusing on observing and describing: (1) the event triggering the emotion; (2) the meaning attributed to the event that triggered the emotion; (3) the sensory experience of the emotion – bodily sensations, etc.; (4) expressive behaviors linked to the emotion; and (5) consequences of the emotion on personal overall functioning.
(2) Identifying Obstacles to Changing Emotions
Changing our deeply ingrained emotional reactions can be very difficult since we become accustomed to responding to certain events in relatively predictable ways over time. It is sometimes especially difficult to change the emotional responses that we know are not good for us when they are followed by reinforcing consequences (e.g., “I know I should not use this recreational drug, but I feel better when I do.”)
Emotions generally serve two functions: to communicate to others and to motivate personal behavior. We often choose emotional responses in attempts to influence or control other people’s behaviors (even subconsciously) or to validate our own perceptions/interpretations of events. A crucial aspect of emotion regulation involves recognizing the function of your emotional responses and what benefits you are getting from responding in particular ways.
(3) Reducing Vulnerability to “Emotion Mind“
When we are under physical or environmental stress, it follows that we are far more vulnerable to emotional reactivity. A key component to regulating emotions involves maintaining a healthy balance in different areas of day-to-day functioning that prevent us from getting overtaxed physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Reducing emotional vulnerability involves balanced nutrition/healthy eating habits, sufficient amounts of sleep, adequate exercise, treating any existing physical ailments, abstaining from non-prescribed mood-altering drugs, and increasing your sense of mastery by immersing yourself in activities that function to build a sense of self-efficacy and competence.
(4) Increasing Positive Emotional Events
Dialectical behavior therapy operates from the assumption that people “feel bad for good reasons.” While the perceptions that you have about emotionally provocative events may be distorted, the emotions themselves are valid. An important way to regulate emotions is to exercise control over the events that trigger intense emotions.
From a short-term perspective, this involves increasing the number of daily positive events in one’s life. From a long-term perspective, this involves making fundamental life changes that result in increasing the likelihood that positive events will occur more frequently. A big piece of this centers around being mindful of positive events when they do occur.
(5) Increasing Mindfulness of Current Emotion
Dr. Linehan (1993) explains that “exposure to painful or distressing emotions, without association to negative consequences, will extinguish their ability to stimulate secondary negative emotions.” When we actively judge emotions as being somehow “bad” the consequences is a subjective emotional state of feeling guilt, anxiety, sadness, or anger. Adding these distressing feelings to an already negative situation only serves to intensify levels of distress and make tolerance of the negative event more difficult.
Learning how to judge affective states in a mindful manner (i.e., without judgment or attempts to modify or inhibit the emotion) allows you to tolerate stressful situations without adding fuel (i.e., intense negative emotions) to the fire. This does not mean that you should not recognize that an event is distressing and respond to it accordingly, it simply means that you should be cognizant of not allowing intense emotional expression to interfere with your ability to respond.
Consider how you can integrate these emotion regulation strategies into your daily life. The process of learning how to regulate emotion takes practice. It is a new skill that must be understood, cultivated, and practiced. Each time you encounter a situation that you know triggers intense emotions for you, try to think of it as an opportunity for you to practice these emotion regulation strategies. Do you notice that your experience changes when you are more mindful and aware of your emotions?
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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: Nirvana by ePi.Longo / CC BY 2.0