As an innate part of our human existence, we continuously, both consciously and unconsciously, experience a wide range of emotions that inform the way we respond to various stimuli. Pivotal to successfully navigating our lives is the ability to manage the emotions that can so easily overwhelm us, while still allowing ourselves to feel those emotions and react to them in healthy ways. This emotional self-regulation requires an active awareness about your current emotional state, the foresight to anticipate emotional disturbance or overload, and the skills to both cope with and mitigate negative emotional arousals.
What are emotions?
While this may seem like an easy question to answer, defining emotions can prove tricky because of the subjective and often elusive nature of the gamut of emotions we feel daily. The word emotion derives from the Latin verb emovere, which means “to stir, agitate, or move.” We can infer that our swirling emotions “stir” us up, activating or arousing us to move past our baseline state of being. This baseline is simply our emotional state of feeling calm, cool, and collected; our baselines are unique to us and our experiences and vary from person to person. Ultimately, when we are at our emotional baseline, feelings do not overwhelm us and we can operate rationally and comfortably.
Experiencing an emotion can be broken down into five primary and linear steps. These steps, outlined below, happen so quickly and automatically that we are generally unaware of them. Bringing these steps into our awareness is crucial to cultivating the ability to manage our emotional states.
Step 1: Sensation or Thought
The first step simply involves experiencing either a physical sensation or a thought. The sensation or thought may be automatic and unconscious, or actively and consciously sought out. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk and you hear the doorbell ring; your body first hears the sound, your senses register it, and then your mind has an automatic thought about that sound: “There is someone at the door.” This thought about the physical sensation is typically based upon empirical evidence and life experience: the doorbell’s purpose is to alert you that someone is at the door. At this point, your body and mind merely notice the sensation and thought.
Step 2: Objective Interpretation
Next, your mind interprets the sensation or thought and ascribes various meanings to it. Perhaps you were expecting a delivery today; now your mind connects the sound of the doorbell and the thought that someone is at the door with a new interpretation: “That must be my Uber Eats delivery.” Your mind has now consciously connected the sensation to a basic and instinctive thought.
Step 3: Subjective Interpretation
Subsequent thoughts now begin to flood your mind, such as, “Finally! The food is late,” “Just in time!” or “That seems early…maybe it’s not my dinner?” In this step, the meaning your mind assigns to the physical sensation and its objective interpretation moves into active and subjective interpretation based on your prior knowledge and other contextual clues. Each new thought contributes to both your impending emotional state and your physical and behavioral reaction.
Step 4: Emotional Reaction
Now your body and mind have enough information to formulate an emotion founded on what you have experienced physically and mentally. The array of thoughts moves to feelings: you now register in your belly how hungry you are, and the lateness of the food creates a feeling of frustration. Or, thinking it is too early for the delivery, you worry who else it might be and begin to feel anxious or even afraid about answering the door.
Step 5: Behavioral Response
Action is now required, and it is time to open the door. Perhaps your frustration causes you to stand up too quickly and you spill your coffee; consequently, your frustration deepens. Or your anxiety about who it might be causes you to look through the peephole before opening the door. The emotional reaction to your sensations propels you to respond in various ways, and these responses build upon each other, continuing, exacerbating, or shifting the emotions you experience.
Watch this TEDx talk by Joan Rosenberg about “Emotional Mastery: The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings.”
What is emotional regulation?
Our emotions often become too large and imposing for us to feel comfortable when experiencing them, causing a chain reaction of deepening negative emotions or a downward spiral from our baseline emotional state to a highly activated and aroused state. Emotional regulation is the ability to notice the emotions we feel through our bodily sensations, name those emotions appropriately, and either manage them so they do not become too much to handle or use various coping strategies to bring us back to baseline.
Staying attuned to your body and its sensations is the first step to self-regulation. What is your body feeling right now? Can you pinpoint various sensations in specific areas? Is there a pit or tightness in your stomach? Do you feel tension in your jaw? What is the rate and depth of your breath? Scanning your body in this way brings conscious awareness to your physical sensations and allows you to be in tune with your body. Now, can you connect these physical sensations with any thoughts or circumstances? Perhaps the tightness in your belly relates to the anxiety you feel about an upcoming deadline. Is your jaw tense because you just had an argument over the phone? Perhaps your breath is slow and measured, signaling a state of relaxation. Try using this body scan technique to become more attuned to your body and what it is signaling to you.
Take a Pause
Now that you have developed more awareness about how your body is feeling and have made connections between these sensations and various thoughts, take a moment to pause, notice what you’re feeling without judgment, and give yourself time before you take any action. Usually, even just this brief pause is enough for us to “check” ourselves, realize that the emotion is just that, a transient emotion, and allows time before the negative emotion grows stronger.
The goal of emotional self-regulation is to develop the capacity to self-soothe and bring your emotional state back down to your baseline with minimal disruption. Think of activities that you could engage in to do this; here are some suggestions:
· Take a walk
· Listen to calming music
· Breathing exercises
· Light candles and take a bath
· Become actively aware of their physical sensations
· Notice the link between body and mind
· Realize emotions are transient
· Allow negative emotions to flow through
· Accept discomfort as inevitable
· Listen to their bodies
· Develop patience
· Stay calm under pressure
· Seek connection with others
· Experience the full array of human emotions
· Control their anger
· Remain persistent on their journey to mindful awareness
Learning to emotionally self-regulate is one of the most powerful skills you can develop. Working with a counselor in either individual or group therapy is a great way to learn more about why you have the reactions you have in certain situations while practicing how to remain grounded and stable even while experiencing intense emotions.