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The pop artist Pink once sang that she was a hazard to herself — her own worst enemy. Would your BFFs say the same about you? If so, you might need to work on your emotional regulation.
Did you ever wonder why things like “feelings charts” often adorn pediatrician office walls? Learning to identify and positively cope with various emotions is a critical part of overall health. While many children learn these techniques from their caregivers, it’s okay to reparent yourself as an adult. If you’re willing to take a long, self-reflective look in the mirror, you can change.
When you do, your life will improve remarkably, touching every aspect, from intimate relationships to your career. How can you do so? Here are five emotional regulation tips to help you get a grip.
What Is Emotional Regulation and Why Does It Matter?
Emotional regulation refers to your ability to react to internal triggers and external events in a positive, constructive manner. It empowers you, preventing you from making a bad situation worse with a maladaptive response. It entails skills such as reframing challenging situations and focusing on reasons to feel calm and happy — or, at least neutral.
Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the difference. For example, say your boss pegs you to give a group presentation, and you hate public speaking.
An Emotionally Dysregulated Response
- Let fear paralyze you, resulting in procrastination, and pushing off working on your project until crunch time.
- Haphazardly throw something together at the last minute, hoping it’s good enough.
- Toss and turn, half in fear of what the next day will bring and half in guilt for not doing your best.
- Get up to have a drink or two to induce sleep. Wake up hungover and give a lackluster presentation.
An Emotionally Regulated Response
- Experience the same physical sensations upon the announcement — a racing heart, sweaty palms — but reframing them as excitement. “This is my chance to impress the boss and finally win that raise.”
- Write a realistic schedule for preparing your presentation and stick to it.
- Have an early dinner and practice yoga and meditation the night before to ease into sleep, visualizing yourself rocking your presentation.
- Wake up, eat a healthy breakfast and knock your boss’s socks off.
You probably recognize that the second approach is best, even without the labels. But here’s the thing — if no one ever taught you these behaviors in childhood, you tend to act like you were raised. If your parents followed the first example — stressing out and turning to substance use — you’re more likely to do the same, even if you cognitively know better.
Training yourself to regulate your emotions isn’t easy. It takes time and the disciplined applications of the methods below. You must be as patient with yourself as a parent with a toddler.
However, learning these emotional regulation tips will transform your life. People who can’t control their emotions are prone to angry outbursts that cause job loss and dissolve relationships. Managing your feelings in a healthy way is a critical life skill, even if you have to start reparenting yourself from square one.
5 Emotional Regulation Tips
Straight talk. If you want these tips to work effectively, you must practice them all the time, especially when you feel calm. Expecting them to work without honing them is like expecting to complete a marathon when you’ve never run farther than a 50-yard dash. However, dedicating yourself to these techniques will transform your life.
This technique works best in conjunction with therapy, where you work to identify your emotional triggers. However, you can use it independently, especially if you mentally “rehearse” through meditation and try these steps with smaller reactions first.
- Purposely stop your immediate reaction: Stop. Whatever you want to do or say, bite your lip as hard as you have to. If you’re with another person, simply say, “I need to take a break,” perhaps giving a bit more reassurance that you’ll return if talking to an intimate partner, and then retreat until your emotional storm subsides.
- Accept the reality of the situation and your physical reactions: Once you get in a private place, do a body scan to examine your physical responses. Recognize that your racing heart and surging adrenaline do not mean you must act — it’s simply your body providing you with a tool (energy) to do so if you so choose. Remind yourself of this. Put the essence of the internal or external conflict into a single sentence — keep narrowing it down until you can fit it into one succinct phrase. Doing so doubles as a calming technique.
- Understand your role in the conflict: It sounds harsh, but sometimes, the problem is you. For example, a whiff of a passing stranger’s cologne reminds you of an unfaithful ex, dredging up memories and making you accuse your current partner of staring at the cutie at the next table when they were simply gazing into the distance. If so, nothing your partner can do at this point will resolve matters — you have to apologize.
- State what you need positively and assertively: Maybe what triggered your reaction was a “return to the office” email when telecommuting works much better for your unique health conditions. Set up a meeting with your boss where you frame your need for WFH accommodations regarding how your improved productivity benefits them and work out an individualized solution.
- Explore the best solution to your problem: Maybe your proposal falls on deaf ears. You can resign yourself to a painful commute that aggravates your herniated disc and makes you miserable and less productive, or you can seek a full telecommuting position elsewhere — what’s the best plan?
You might recognize the HALT technique if you already engage in therapy. HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and it’s a fabulous method of determining when external or internal sensory stressors influence your reactions.
This technique works best when you use it as a mini check-in throughout the day. Fortunately, you have the perfect tool for practicing this emotional regulation tip in the palm of your hand. Set a timer on your cellphone to go off once an hour. When it does, pause for a quick scan of your physical and mental state — how are you feeling, and how might it adversely impact you? If you are experiencing a negative state, how can you address it?
3. Adopt a Daily Meditation Practice
Meditation has proven benefits for both physical and mental health. Slow, deep breathing alone activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the side that tells you to relax. When it engages, you’re able to see situations with improved clarity. Ask yourself this: How often has the perfect solution or witty comeback popped into your head when you were resting in bed or relaxed and engaged in another activity?
Many Buddhists use the last few minutes of each day to reflect on the past 24 hours and their actions, evaluating whether they acted in accordance with the dharma and how they can improve. Pro-tip: Skip this technique at first if you tend to ruminate or beat yourself up over past actions that you cannot change. Instead, calm yourself with techniques like gentle yin yoga in bed and deep breathing, perhaps using affirmations until introspection comes without guilt and sleepless nights.
4. Work Through Your Triggers by Journaling
How can you discover and work through your emotional triggers to become less reactive? Journaling is a fabulous technique, but it begins with mindfulness. Start by tuning into what causes negative feelings to arise.
Then, freewrite. If it feels good to explore the causes of your triggers, feel free. However, simply putting emotionally charged situations in black and white sometimes diffuses them. If not, use the pages to brainstorm alternative ways to handle the emotions that arise. Let your mind run wild as you explore every option.
5. Consider Therapy
These emotional regulation tips can help if you’re digging into self-improvement solo. But reading an article alone won’t solve your problems without work. Unfortunately, many Americans face financial barriers to receiving the mental health treatment they need, from no insurance to inadequate coverage to insufficient time off at their pay grade to seek care.
However, please investigate solutions such as sliding-scale therapy for those with few resources. University teaching hospitals are another possibility. You can also apply for Medicaid through the exchange at Healthcare.gov and see if you can get free health coverage. While an app may seem like an overly-modern solution, many offer occasional one-on-one check-ins with a licensed therapist if you don’t qualify for aid elsewhere.
Emotional Regulation Tips to Help You Get a Grip
Emotional regulation is perhaps the most important skill parents teach their children. Unfortunately, not everyone masters the art at a young age. If you fall into this category, these emotional regulation tips can transform your life.
Everything from your career to personal relationships improves when you learn how to regulate your emotions. You also feel better about yourself when you know to respond thoughtfully and positively to the stressors in your life instead of letting your feelings control you.
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