Written by therapist Hadassah Carlson
Many people want to grow in their ability to feel their emotions. However, committing to feel your emotions can be scary because another fear you may have is, what if the emotion controls me? Enter emotional regulation. This is important because we need to be able to feel and manage emotions to be connected to ourselves and others. Emotional regulation refers to your ability to control your emotions. The reality is that we can control our emotions, or we can allow our emotions to control us.
Take a moment and think about these questions:
- Have there been times where my emotions controlled/influenced my actions?
- If yes, how did you feel about that?
- How have your thoughts affected your emotions?
- How have your emotions and sensations affected your behaviors?
Why It Can Be Hard to Regulate Emotions
Multiple factors can influence why emotional regulation is challenging. Maybe you grew up in a family where some emotions were accepted and some were not and your parents didn’t regulate the emotions they did have. When we don’t see emotional regulation modeled for us as kids, it’s easy to feel lost when we try to regulate our emotions for the first time.
Biological factors can make emotion regulation harder. Being in an emotionally heightened environment can reinforce you when you’re feeling highly emotional. Your current mood can be stronger than your desire to regulate your emotions. Myths about emotions, such as having emotions means you’re weak, can be a barrier as you try to manage your emotions.
While these factors can make emotional regulation tough, I believe where most people feel stuck is when they experience an emotional overload, or when they don’t feel equipped with the skills to regulate themselves. Emotional overload occurs when high emotional arousal causes you to hit a skills breakdown point. You’re experiencing so much overwhelm that you can’t recall your skills or what to do next.
It’s also possible that you believe you don’t have the skills to help you manage your emotions so feeling your emotions is overwhelming. One skill that can help you with managing your emotions is called the emotional regulation bullseye.
Emotional Regulation Bullseye
The emotional regulation bullseye can be a helpful tool to prepare you for the next time you feel a big emotion. Pictured above is a circle with three parts to it: the middle circle is green, the first ring is yellow, and the outer ring is red.
The green part represents being comfortable and feeling regulated and in control. The yellow ring represents being uncomfortable and beginning to feel dysregulated and out of control. The red ring represents being in a crisis, feeling completely out of control and making harmful attempts to regulate yourself.
Think about your emotions, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors at each stage: green, yellow, and red. When you’re in the green you feel calm and peaceful, in yellow you feel agitated and concerned, and in red you’re experiencing an anxiety attack or uncontrollable anger.
Next, think about the green stage as the prevention stage, the yellow stage as the intervention stage, and the red stage as the crisis stage. Spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you can do to stay in the green stage and what are some things you can do to prevent yourself from moving to yellow. Now think about what interventions you can do when you start to feel dysregulated to move from yellow into the green stage again.
Build Your Emotional Regulation Muscles
Like any skill, emotional regulation will take time to master. I appreciate the metaphor of when you begin to work out at the gym. It’s not realistic to deadlift 300lbs on your first day. You’ll need time to train your muscles little by little before you can even begin to deadlift. What this means for emotional regulation is that you don’t have to regulate yourself perfectly the first time. It will take time and energy to master this skill. Start small and be gracious with yourself as you practice.
Helpful Hack: HALT
Other factors that can influence your emotions are when you’re hungry, angry, lonely and/or tired. HALT is an acronym that’s easy to remember.
H – Hungry
A – Angry
L – Lonely
T – Tired
When you feel one or several of these things, it can make emotional regulation more of a challenge. It’s best to stop, or halt, and care for these needs by eating a meal, taking time to breathe, calling a good friend, taking a nap or clearing your plans to give yourself more time.
If you feel ready to learn about emotional regulation and how to practice it in your life, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We would love to talk with you more about it and work towards healthy and happy living.