Emotional regulation: Emotions as indicators and not dictators

Do your emotions have ruling authority over how you react, behave and interact with others?

As humans, we cannot navigate throughout life without emotions because emotions are indicators of ourselves and what is happening within our environment. We can use feelings as information rather than as instructions or recipes on how to behave. Negative emotions provide to help us correct behavior and take action. They are a part of being human, despite at times the suffering associated with negative emotions There are eight basic emotions (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust), each with their opposite emotion. This makes emotions appear simple and trouble-free however they are dynamic and their influence on us is much more complex than this (otherwise emotional disorders wouldn’t exist)!

Emotions can influence and interact with each other. For some, experiencing multiple or even two opposite emotions at the same time is possible (even though this dialect seems impossible). For example, some might experience anger and fear at the same time in response to the same situation. For some, sadness and joy could exist together. This dialect causes confusion & heightens our experience of emotions, creating distress and therefore effective decision making to be compromised. When we are faced with intense, conflicting emotions and even multiple emotions at the same time it requires mindful awareness, healthy tolerance of distress, and regulation of the emotion to then behave effectively within relationships (the core principles of treatment when working with emotional and personality difficulties).

In a blog I previously wrote about experiential avoidance – (https://www.rwapsych.com.au/blog/the-importance-of-being-psychologically-flexible/ ) – I spoke about having a tendency to move away from emotional experiences when they are negative and how this increases suffering. When our emotions are unregulated and we have a tendency towards avoidance it increases our need to react to the emotion. For example, if we are sad and angry and we are trying to avoid contact with this emotion it can increase in its intensity and therefore lead us to react in an impulsive manner. This can be considered a form of suppression of emotions, a little like a volcano that eventually erupts because the emotion (or heat in the volcano) needs to be processed. Maybe we could view the emotion of anger a indication that someone has done something wrong to us and that we may simply need to assert and negotiate with the other person. Or maybe the emotion of anger could indicate that we need to consider whether it is a matter of our perception that needs to be challenged.

We may have experienced early childhoods that did not encourage this basic learning and so moderating strategies and emotional understanding were never learnt and developed. It does not mean that emotions have to dictate your life and your relationships.

How do you respond to your emotions? How would others describe your response to emotions?

Do you find that you have a tendency to one particular emotion? A tendency towards a negative emotion in particular? It might be worth exploring this.

Do you tend to use past experiences and memories to interpret current situations and use that as your main source of information? What if you were open to other information to consider other perspectives to your emotions? Here are a few steps you can start to practice to regulate your emotions….

Firstly, notice the zone you are in. A helpful way to think about this is to use the colours of a traffic light to make it easier to recognise your emotions and think about how close you are to the red. The orange light is a way to notice that you need to do something to move back towards the green zone. It could be as simple meditating, going for a walk, writing in a journal or going for a coffee with a friend. The green light can be a representation of positive emotions that you can try to elicit through positive experiences and exercises (we all love a green light on our city roads!).

Secondly, we can engage in cognitive reappraisal. Earlier I mentioned that emotions are linked to the way we think about situations Reappraising and reframing situations allows you to transform the whole emotion and gain perspective over it. You can do this by reappraising the situation. For example if your friend has not called you for the past few days and you begin to think “I have done something wrong, that is why she has not called me back” you can reappraise the situation by thinking “maybe her not calling is not about me, maybe she is busy”. Cognitive reappraisal allows us to gain a broader perception and not be stuck in one way of thinking about a situation and therefore one way of feeling about it. It reduces the emotional intensity and allows us to behave/ interact / communicate more effectively.

Lastly, you can try to self-soothe the toxic impact of negative emotions such as anger and sadness. Sometimes when emotions are too intense it can be that we need a quick way to intervene to reduce the distress and then be able to choose the best course of action. What self-soothing does is to reduce the intensity of an emotion in order to then make better and more effective decisions. It also decreases your need to use unhealthy ways of coping with distress like reacting in anger. You can try self-soothing strategies by listen to music that elicits calmness, you can hold something cold or warm in your hand and focus on the physical sensation, sitting down and recollecting positive memories that you have with the person you are having trouble with at the time or you can take a deep breath or do some baking in the presence of distress. It is simply an effective and proven way to reduce distress and unhealthy coping and to encourage healthier ways of behaving.

If your emotions dictate your life, your relationships and the decisions you make, maybe it is time to get in touch. We can start the process of healing from emotional wounds and learn new ways of living alongside the emotions that we experience more adaptively….

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