This easy 8-step process will help you with basic emotional regulation and how to increase your cognitive and physical resilience and improve your problem-solving skills.
Therapist uses the term “Emotional Regulation” to describe a person’s ability to effectively deal with or respond to an emotional experience. Often we have an easier time dealing with uplifting and happy emotions but struggle to deal with what some people call negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, and shame. We might be reactive or respond impulsively to a negative emotion, which sometimes leads to experiencing an exaggerated sense of helplessness, the feeling of being out of control, low self-esteem, compromised relationships and even self-harm or self-injury.
Why is good emotional regulation important? It will keep you safe; it will help you deal with different adversities and challenges in your life, and is important for your overall sense of wellbeing and emotional health.
Let’s look at these examples.
|Jim was preparing for his presentation at work and he was becoming somewhat nervous. Although he told himself not to be stupid and just to suck it up, he became progressively more annoyed. He told himself that he was pathetic for stressing about a minor presentation. Then he started thinking about what a loser he must be because he couldn’t snap out of it. When his girlfriend asked if he wanted to practise giving the presentation with her, he felt somewhat ashamed, and replied that she knew nothing about his job so it would be of no use. The whole day was stressful and Jim became increasingly annoyed by minor things. Eventually he went out to a pub to “unwind”.||John was preparing for his presentation at work and he was becoming somewhat nervous. He did a mindfulness exercise and noticed how tired his body was. He tried to name what he was feeling: “Anxious, nervous, unsure of himself”. John asked himself what it was exactly that was so concerning, and decided that he was worried about making a mistake and embarrassing himself. He devised a plan to practise the presentation and asked his girlfriend to be his audience. He used mindfulness and relaxation exercises, went for a run and took regular breaks. He noticed that after a while his anxiety was dissipating and he began to feel more self-assured. Whenever he became aware of a new anxiety-provoking thought, John wrote it down and tried to find a way to address it.|
Jim denied his emotions. Initially, when he felt anxiety he made himself feel bad about it and then started feeling shame and frustration. Instead of pausing and reflecting on what was happening, his approach was to power through until he was tired of worrying, and then to go to a pub.
John, however, didn’t judge his emotions. He was curious about them. He tried to use the strategies that were available to him to elevate some of the anxiety.
Often we don’t notice what our primary emotions are, as we might have certain judgments and beliefs about our emotions.
For example, Julia promised to help her friend moving, but she was caught up at work and forgot. When she remembered she felt guilty and ashamed, but immediately after she felt angry with her friend for making her feel these emotions, as she should have organised her own move and paid a removalist instead of expecting Julia to help out.
In another example, Jack was late to pick up Mary and she became worried. Mary kept on checking her mobile phone, becoming increasingly tense, then after a few minutes, she started feeling rejected and not good enough. When Jack finally arrived, she was feeling overwhelmed and they had an argument.
So what steps should we take to regulate our emotions? We follow this 6 + 2 step process. The initial 6 steps are from The Dialectal Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook and the last two are for you to design and plan, improving your problem-solving.
- Identify what happened. What lead to this emotion? In Mary’s case a situation arose where she didn’t know when or if Jack was coming to pick her up.
- What do you think was behind it? Mary started to believe that Jack intentionally stood her up and he didn’t value her.
- How did this situation make you feel emotionally and physically? Mary’s interpretation of events made her more likely to feel rejected and upset. She thought that Jack was just like her unreliable ex-boyfriend. Consider your physical and emotional response. What did you feel initially? What was your secondary emotion? How did your body respond? What was happening in your body and mind? What thoughts were you aware of?
- What did you want to do as a result of what you felt? In other words, what is your urge? Mary’s urge to lash out led to an argument with Jack when he arrived. Consider your urge. Did you want to hurt yourself? Or did you want to hurt the person who you thought was responsible for your feelings? Sometimes urges can be very strong – to hurt someone, to break an object, to quit a job, to push someone, or to drink.
- What were the immediate consequences? What hurtful things did you do and say at the time? Did you actually end up hurting yourself as well as others? Did you react impulsively and did this lead to negative consequences? What did you do?
- What were the long-term consequences? How did your emotions and actions affect you later? Here you can describe the short-term and long-term consequences of your actions. In Mary’s case, immediately after starting the argument Mary felt good that she had stood up for herself and told off Jack for treating her badly. Maybe initially it felt good and there was a real sense of relief. However, a long-term consequence could be that Jack felt unfairly accused of being disrespectful. He was going to be on time until he had a flat tyre. He didn’t notice her messages because he was focusing on changing the tyre and rushing to see her. When we react rashly we often deal with negative consequences of our behaviour.
- How would you react in this situation? Think about what you need to do to react differently. In Mary’s case it might be to remind herself that she should wait for Jack’s explanation before she lets her mind She shouldn’t assume he is the same as her ex-boyfriend. She might need to use self-calming strategies and commit to looking after herself, communicating her boundaries clearly and knowing that if a relationship is not satisfying or positive she will end it, and that will be all right.
- What do you need to do? What do you need to adjust in your behaviour and thinking to improve your emotional regulation? What new habits do you need to create to help yourself to react differently to situations that arise in the future? Mary might choose mindfulness, relaxation, working on her self-esteem, and resolving past trauma or issues associated with previous intimate relationships.
 McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger.
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