A primer on Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is our ability to change the trajectory of an emotional response based on our behaviours. Simply put, it’s our ability to change how we feel using strategies we have in our emotion regulation toolkit to make us feel better quicker. For example, being able to bring ourselves back to feeling okay after having an argument with our partner.
Specific skills that we use to regulate our emotions can be called emotion regulation skills. The skills I’ll discuss here are often used in emotion regulation training that are provided by clinicians. In some ways, these skills are like tools in a toolbox – you choose the one best suited for different situations. Therefore, it can be helpful to know where you are in your emotional response because it allows us to choose the proper tools to support our current emotion regulation needs.
These skills are important to ensure that we don’t let our emotions overwhelm us and act in ways that we don’t want to. By bringing our emotions down to manageable levels, we’re able to act in a way that’s in accordance with our goals and values.
Components of the emotional response
We can break down our emotional response into three main components: (1) emotional baseline (2) emotional reactivity and (3) emotional recovery.
Our emotional baseline is how we feel on a day to day, without anything around to bug or annoy us. Some people are generally calmer or happier on day to day, whereas others may be walking around with a chip on their shoulder.
Emotional reactivity is how strong our response is when something stressful happens. For example, two people might hear the same bad news, but one person may have much stronger reaction to the news than the other person. They may be angry, more irritated, or sadder.
Emotional recovery refers to how long it takes for us to get back to our emotional baseline. For some people, they recovery quickly and feel better within a couple minutes, whereas others may take hours or even days to feel better.
Below, we talk about different emotion regulation strategies to intervene at different points of the emotional response.
1. Emotion regulation strategies for the emotional baseline
Depending on where our emotional baseline is, we can be particularly susceptible to stressors when they happen. For example, if you are always walking around feeling slightly irritated, it may take much less to set you off.
Consequently, it’s important to have strategies here to improve our emotional baseline to become less vulnerable to nasty situations.
One way to reduce emotional vulnerability is the PLEASE skills. The PLEASE skills are a set of aspects in our lives that we can improve to ensure that we are at our best to handle stressful situations. These areas include ensuring that our physical health is well-managed, eating a balanced diet, avoiding substances that harm you, and sleeping well. The attached post provides more in-depth detail on the PLEASE skills.
Beyond these domains, it’s also important to consider activities in life that nourish and deplete you. For example, some people find that spending time with certain friends are very nourishing and make them feel good. On the other hand, there may be certain people in their lives that deplete them. Consider activities, people, and places that nourish you and intentionally add these into your lives. On the opposite side of the coin, consider reducing depleting aspects of your life.
2. Emotion regulation strategies for emotional reactivity
Regular mindfulness practice can be a fantastic skill to develop in order to reduce emotional reactivity. Mindfulness refers to our ability to attend to present experiences in a way non-judgmental and compassionate. By doing this, we reduce the emotional power that negative situations can have in our life by simply letting go. Although this is easier said than done, regular practice will help to improve your mindfulness skills like a muscle. Even 5 minutes a day can drive amazing results.
Beyond mindfulness practice, the strategies used to improve emotional baseline, such as PLEASE skills and nourishing activities, are also helpful to reduce reactivity. When we feel depleted, the same stressor can have a much bigger impact on us compared to when we are feeling nourished
3. Emotional regulation strategies for emotional recovery
Strategies for emotional reactivity help to reduce the peak of the emotional response. But once we are at the peak, what do we do to bring us back to baseline?
The strategies we can employ can depend on two things: (1) where we’re at on the emotional thermometer (i.e., what’s our distress levels?) and (2) which strategies you enjoy using the most.
For situations at the top of the emotional thermometer (e.g., crisis situations), then the STOP or TIPP skills are good choices for crisis management. They include forcing ourselves to stop in the moment and use strategies that expel our distressing energy (e.g., using temperature or intense exercise).
For distressing situations that increase distress but not to a crisis degree, then distraction strategies (e.g., ACCEPTS or soothing skills) can be useful. These strategies can be particularly helpful when we’re dealing with chronic stressors (e.g., stressors that can last a long time without solution, such as waiting for test results).
Self-validation skills could be useful to navigate feelings of guilt or shame that comes from thinking that the way we are feeling is wrong. For example, some people may be upset at themselves for feeling bad about something their partner said even though their intentions are good. This can lead to invalidating our own feelings and make us feel more distressed. Finally, general relaxation strategies can be helpful in reducing the physiological response of anxiety through deep breathing, guided relaxations, or progressive muscle relaxations.
- Emotional responses contain three components: emotional baseline, reactivity, and recovery
- Having a number of different emotion regulation strategies can be helpful to intervene at each of these different levels
- Pick the strategies that work best for you (i.e., the best tool from your emotion regulation toolkit)
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