What does it mean to regulate your emotions?

Emotional regulation sounds wonderful. To completely control your reaction to life’s curve balls would be so valuable, for example, to switch off jealousy when your partner gets a hot new friend, or remain calm in the face of rudeness from a customer service worker, but is it really possible and does it deny your feelings?

Whether we realise or not we use some forms of emotional regulation all the time, and a lot of it is about social acceptance. For example, even if your not upset that your Uncle Colin has died, you would probably still act in a mournful way at his funeral and just because an annoying driver has just dangerously undertaken you, hopefully you won’t take a baseball bat to their windscreen. According to a recent Telegraph article more than half of people have fantasised about killing someone they know, fortunately our murder rate doesn’t reflect this. Society certainly dictates our actions to some extent, and because of this we learn to control and regulate our emotions.

We also have our own personal goals. You may want to control your emotional reactions at work in order to be more professional, or hide the fact that your terrified of spiders in front of your children so you don’t pass on the phobia.

Indeed, dealing with children is a great example of emotional regulation. When your beloved toddler is winding you up with a tantrum, remaining calm and explaining to them why they can’t wear their sandals out in the snow takes great personal control.

However, we don’t always regulate our emotions in a positive and helpful way, this is called emotional dysregulation. Denying our emotions is a common example of this which only tends to intensify feelings and cause them to pop up at inopportune moments. Other examples of emotional dysregulation are avoidance, procrastination and rumination. These can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, substance abuse and relationship problems. 

So other than behaving mournfully at a funeral and not murdering someone, what better ways are there to emotionally regulate? Changing your perspective and reframing an emotion or situation can benefit your mindset positively and increases resilience. Being empathetic and trying to understand what someone might be going through in order to see things from a different perspective can allow us to take a step back from the situation think about how we may want to react. Reframing an emotion can help to add a positive spin and even if we don’t believe in the reframe, we can work towards that mindset. For example, Jo is sad about her daughter travelling for a year because she’ll worry about her and miss her, but she is trying to remember that her daughter will have a fantastic time and will learn a lot. Even simply acknowledging there is a positive spin is better than dwelling solely on the negative. 

For those of you who have worked in front line services you will know that humour is often a way of getting through the worst. Distraction is another wise move. This is particularly useful with children as they can then learn that emotions are transient, especially if you explain after the event, yes you were angry your sister broke your Lego, but you played in the bath for a bit and got over it. Talking to a friend, sharing problems and asking for help are wonderful ways to control emotions that feel overwhelming.

We must, however, remember it is very important to accept our feelings and doing this has been shown to decrease negative emotions. Owning up to how we feel, showing our weaknesses but knowing we have the power to regulate it, if we should choose to do so, is an ideal to aspire to. This can be difficult as many of our feelings and actions are not conscious, they are subconscious reactions that we have acquired throughout our lives. Think about your childhood: what did you learn about how you deal with your emotions? A hypnotherapist can communicate with your subconscious mind helping you to understand how you emotionally dysregulate, often this behaviour is a protective measure, such as suppression of emotion to protect from conflict. Hypnotherapy can help you to understand your behaviours and help you to change your reactions using a number of techniques. Please get in touch if you are finding your emotions are overwhelming and need help to change unhelpful behaviours. 

So next time you watch a comedy to cheer yourself up or force a smile to regcognise a friend even though you are feeling sad inside, remember you are able to control many of your emotions and that control can be applied to any area of your life. It’s a transferable skill.