Wondering how to regulate emotions in a roller coaster world? Feeling sad because of a recent news story? Angry at a coworker or friend? Frustrated, nervous, overwhelmed at the thought of COVID-19 and just trying to make it day-by-day? Maybe we’re inexplicably joyful on a sunny Friday and more wistful on a cloudy Tuesday.
Whatever the day, whatever the scenario, and wherever we are in our life, we will always have emotions. They are a normal part of being human and experiencing the highs and lows of living. But what do emotions tell us, exactly? Why is it that it can feel like we’re on top of the world one minute and in the pits of despair a few hours later?
What Are Emotions?
I’m a counselor who has studied, worked with, and navigated my own emotional experiences for years. Here’s what I’ve discovered (and the research supports it!). The best definition I found, according to dictionary.com, is this:
Emotions are spontaneous mental reactions, such as joy, pain, or sorry, largely the result of a circumstance, encounter, or experience.
Many times the reactions are so strong we feel it in our bodies, like a racing heartbeat or fogginess in the head. It’s no wonder emotional experiences can be simultaneously so exhilarating and debilitating!
Think about how many times during the day we have reactions to our surroundings. We woke up to a happy text-message or heard our favorite song on the radio. Maybe the traffic was bad on the way to work, or Zoom isn’t working for your-back-to-back meetings. A stressed out partner, friend, or family member can leave us tail-spinning, wondering whether we did something wrong.
Psychological research in the past few decades has agreed that emotions are an adaptive response that helps prepare our minds and bodies to adapt to whatever circumstances might arise. Our emotions influence how we think about the world and how we choose to act in it. But, as we know, just because something is a biological response doesn’t make it easy to navigate!
Proven Strategies to Help Regulate Emotions
Here are six ways that are both empirically-supported and anecdotally-helpful in learning to regulate emotions (both positive and negative!). These have worked at different times for me, loved ones, and the clients I work with!
- Soothe. Find ways to calm down your nervous system! For most of us, we cannot start processing our feelings until our bodies are calmer, which in turn lets us think and react from a more grounded space. Exercise (walking can be the best form!), soothing music (ambient sounds on Youtube, anyone?), and mindfulness are some of my favorite ways to calm down my nervous system from the intense response.
- Share. Share your truth (honestly and without self-judgment) with a trusted friend, loved one, counselor, or confidant. As humans, we crave connection with others, authenticity in sharing ourselves, and reciprocity in our relationships. Having someone really listen and validate your experiences can be one of the most soothing things for tough emotions like anger, sadness, or worry. We’re not meant to be alone in our heads, trying to do it all ourselves. Learning to share can powerfully help regulate emotions when they seem to overwhelm us.
- Identify. At some point in the conversation or during your reflection, try saying out loud or writing the following sentence: “I feel because….” Identifying and labeling your feelings, and attempting to figure out why it occurred helps build our resilience and takes our mind off the uncomfortable physiological and mental state that we are in.
- Acceptance. Allow yourself to FEEL! Once the intensity has worn down a bit, it can feel easy to want to soothe away your feelings or suppress them in some way. This can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms that cause physical and psychological harm. More importantly, when we immerse ourselves in the experience, it’s like exposure therapy and radical acceptance all in one! Suddenly, we’re less resistant to our reaction and more present to what’s occurring in our internal world. The fear, rage, or sadness that felt so insurmountable now doesn’t feel as nerve-wracking.
- Reframe. A key to learning to regulate emotions is to find a way to make sense of your experience by uncovering a lesson that you can take away. This can be through journaling, counseling, or a structured conversation with a trusted friend. For example, after an uncomfortable interaction with my partner, I can remind myself that I’m not as patient with him when I’m stressed. My feelings of anger from the argument can dissipate when I could slow myself down enough to realize I can focus my energy on cultivating patience for him and allowing acceptance and compassion for my stress. A win-win!
- Patience. Don’t rush yourself! Emotions are not like a check-list, and learning to regulate emotions takes time. Sometimes, it is too much effort to know why an emotion is surfacing. Do what you can in the moment to the best of your ability and trust that it will be enough.
Hopefully, this list will help you the next time a strong emotion occurs! Remember that you’re human, and it’s okay to feel a certain way when something happens. As you learn to regulate emotions, this list might come in handy. If you ever feel completely out of control or lead you to cross boundaries of self-harm or harm to others, please call 911, your local crisis line, and/or make an appointment with a mental health professional.