Held hostage by your emotions? Self-regulation may help.

A few years ago, I was in a group therapy session, sitting among a handful of women in a circle. At the time, I was leading this women’s process group as a counselor in a residential drug and alcohol program for adults. This group met daily and provided an opportunity for members to discuss anything they were struggling with and they would receive support and feedback from other members. The group began with check-ins from each woman to help set the stage for how we’d use the daily meeting. It was not uncommon for someone in the group to come in feeling overwhelmed by something they were experiencing - our clients were trying to navigate their recovery even though they had lives, families, and stressors outside of treatment.

I remember one particular group session when a middle-age woman frantically shared that she and her husband had a disagreement on the phone earlier that day. She said that one of them ended up hanging up on the other, but then over the course of a few hours she had called him back a number of times, apologizing, taking ownership of her role, and seeking reassurance that their relationship was okay. Her husband felt a little annoyed by their argument but still promised her that their marriage was secure and that he just needed a little time to think. Despite all that, she worried. During her check-in she requested to be excused from the group so that she could call her husband yet again. The group then began exploring how our emotions sometimes dictate our beliefs and behaviors. It became clear that this woman was feeling anxious and fearful that her husband was angry from their argument and she believed that calling him again would help smooth things over between them. In reality, this individual’s trauma and insecurities were awakening after the fight and she was struggling to regulate her emotions, leaving her with an immense desire to call her husband in an effort to receive reassurance and no longer feel these emotions. The problem was that this was a pattern for this individual: an event would happen, insecurities would surface, she would seek reassurance or validation, she would receive reassurance, she would second guess this reassurance, fear and anxiety would then take over, and she would do anything and everything to make the anxiety go away - sometimes to the point where she became self-destructive and created even more problems.

This is what emotional dysregulation looks like, and I believe most people can identify with this situation. I know I’ve had similar experiences where I was so focused on making an emotion or feeling go away that it sometimes came at a great cost.

We all feel overwhelmed and panicky at times, and I want to explore the idea of using emotional regulation, something you can practice on your own, to respond to these feelings. There are so many moving parts when we feel overwhelmed. First, we have our emotional experience to a situation, which can be heightened by prior trauma and chaos. We also have thoughts that narrate the story internally and try to make sense of what’s happened. Most of us have patterns of thinking that occasionally work against us (to learn more about unhelpful styles of thinking, I explore them in this blog post). Lastly, we make decisions on how to respond, and more often than not we’re searching for a way to avoid feeling whatever uncomfortable emotion has come about. Because of the intensity of the emotions, it can often times feel like we don’t have a choice in how we react to a situation. In the example above, the woman thought the only way to make her anxiety and fear go away was to speak to her husband, but as an objective audience the group could see that this might bring on more stress since her husband stated that he was not angry but needed time to process his thoughts. Heightened emotions challenge our brain’s ability to think clearly, leading to tunnel vision which means that we react rather than respond to situations. I want to clear the air on something: there is no such thing as a bad emotion.  Some emotions may be more or less comfortable than others, but we need to break the habit of labeling our feelings as negative.

While this first bit might seem elementary, I encourage you to keep an open mind and engage in self-reflection during this process. It’s important to address any risk factors that may be inviting emotional dysregulation. Risk factors include things like your sleep, diet, breathing habits, and physical health. While we sometimes treat them like they’re separate, our emotional health and physical health are woven together. Nurturing your body and treating it well prevents a depletion of important hormones and neurotransmitters that are vital for emotional health and stability. Often times we feel emotionally deregulated during periods of heightened stress, and one of the first things we let go of is self-care: we sleep and relax less, eat low nutrient meals or skip them altogether, and we drop physical activity to create time and space for whatever is ailing us. One of the best things we can do for our bodies is master the practice of intentional belly breathing.  It’s essential to find a balance when life becomes demanding and that does not include giving up the things that keep us going.

Learning to self-regulate provides us the power to respond to tough emotional experiences. It lets us be the captain of our own ship even when shit hits the fan. One of the most important things I want you to take away from this post is this: you are strong and thus capable of finding balance during an emotional storm. As an exercise, I’d like for you to close your eyes and picture a big wave in the ocean. You may have envisioned a wave building and becoming taller, eventually cresting and then flattening into the water before growing again. One of the key principles in emotional self-regulation is learning to ride the waves of emotion. When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, it feels like a growing internal pressure, similar to the wave I just described, but most of us fear this experience so we do anything and everything to make this growing pressure go away. We interrupt and cut off the emotion before it gets too big, often times in ways that are only temporary and counter-productive and cause more chaos and distress. Learning to sit with these emotions without interrupting them allows your body to naturally respond and calm the intense worry. We interrupt emotions because of fear but by encouraging ourselves to sit through these experiences we learn that the fear really wasn’t great as we believed: we learn that we’re capable of being with ourselves and working through these emotions in a manner that is longer-lasting and sustainable. When we don’t interrupt these emotions with certain behaviors we also have less to regret afterwards, like self-harm, obsessively call a partner to ensure they still love us, and using drugs or alcohol, among other examples.

Utilizing mindfulness also helps to self-regulate because it challenges us to see beyond our distress by connecting with the moment. Mindful living encourages us to experience moments with intention while engaging our five senses: taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. So instead of interrupting emotional experiences by doing something counterproductive, we can acknowledge where we are emotionally through self-talk and then focus on grounding ourselves to the moment. To do some we can use an exercise like this: What are 5 things I see, 4 things I hear, 3 things I feel or touch, 2 things I smell, and 1 thing I taste? Go ahead and try that one out yourself. Another exercise to use for self-regulation is to try describing your emotional and physical experience as though you are a curious scientist. These practices may be tough to do alone in the beginning because they require a good bit of self-awareness, but practice helps strengthen insight into what you’re experiencing. Another tip is to practice mindfulness daily, even when you’re feeling emotionally balanced because this will allow you to notice when things begin to feel dysregulated early on.

Lastly, it’s important to understand that emotional dysregulation is typically a response to previous chaos and trauma. Some people may find success through implementing the tips I’ve shared so far, but some may not because of unaddressed underlying issues affecting their emotional and mental health. I’ve been able to share some education and shed light on a few skills that readers hopefully find helpful, but this post is no substitution for personal counseling. Insecurities, traumas and chaos weave their way not only into our memories but also into our bodies. My last tip is to meet with a mental health professional to address how underlying issues are impacting your ability to self-regulate.