Emotional Regulation Skills: Three Techniques to Master
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 15, 2020
We need effective skills that regulate heightened emotions, preventing emotional overload and exhaustion. These three widely used techniques can help.
Emotions are part of the neurochemical system evolved to navigate life’s complex currents. When emotions, thoughts, and behavior are coordinated in response to environmental triggers, moving us towards goals, while enhancing present moment happiness, we flourish. This is not always the case. Sometimes our emotions disrupt more than direct. Our thoughts spike emotions, giving life to fears and depressions. We chaotically respond, protecting our ego but destroying futures. Although our system evolved to be responsive, sometimes it is out of whack.
We gain confidence by successfully navigating storms, surviving when unseen forces topple hopes and threatening stability. Albert Bandura wrote, “Having a serviceable coping skill at one’s disposal undoubtedly contributes to one’s sense of personal efficacy” (1977).
A major meta-analytic review concluded that problematic emotional regulation strategies is associated with multiple psychological problems—including depression and anxiety (Aldao, Nolen-Hocksema & Schweizer, 2010). While I don’t want to make an inferential leap, suggesting that maladaptive regulation strategies cause psychological dysfunctions, we can’t dismiss the correlation, acknowledging that maladaptive regulation and psychological dysfunction often travel together (Yoon and Rottenberg, 2020).
We chaotically respond, protecting our ego but destroying futures.
Reducing Maladaptive Strategies
An objective of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is to reduce maladaptive strategies and increase adaptive strategies. We respond to the whirlwind of experience in a variety of ways, experimenting with regulation techniques that invite wellness while identifying strategies that fail.
Effective strategies do not make pain go away. We can’t create a problem free environment no matter how effective our strategies. Our world will constantly collide with the world of others—and many of the collisions hurt. While there is always a cause to happenings, those causes often hide in rich complexity. We can’t avoid every hurt when living in an unpredictable world, we can, however, limit the suffering.
Emotional experiences are compounding. Healthy strategies mitigate the suffering, reducing the emotional load, freeing cognitive space for new events. Emotional regulation strategies can’t be easily divided as good and bad or healthy and unhealthy. Strategies are context dependent; ordinarily healthy regulation techniques when misused become unhealthy. Regulation strategies don’t stand on their own, often achieving success when balanced with other strategies.
Dr. Gabor Maté warns that many coping styles “magnify the risk for illness by increasing the likelihood of chronic stress.” He continues that when emotions are suppressed or denied “emotional experiences are translated into potentially damaging biological events when human beings are prevented from learning how to express their feelings effectively” (2011, location 2319).
Three Popular Regulation Strategies
Three popular regulation strategies are problem solving, cognitive reappraisal, and acceptance. These techniques have notable benefits and limitations. Successful application requires practice, so, as Bandura suggests, we have them at “our disposal” to navigate the stormy emotions of living.
Emotions are built in biological responses to goal obstructions. Our predicting brain just can’t get it right all the time. Events and people intrude, stall, or demolish plans. We respond emotionally to these interruptions. We must put on the cognitive brakes, shift gears, and avoid the collision.
Our emotion is a signal—a warning sign. The discomforting emotion cues attention that to a goal that is being thwarted. Problem solving is a practical approach to quiet emotional alarms. We identify the goal and the obstruction, responding with an appropriate solution.
Ultimately, healthy resolutions require some reality linkage. We must be grounded enough to address the problem. Making decisions without a clear set of governing values and identifiable goals is taxing. Without an anchor, we continually sway with the many conflicting influences, siding with whichever is stronger at that particular moment. This is mindless decision making. Constructive problem solving demands we Identify our value and act on it.
David Reynolds wrote in his timeless classic Constructive Living that “some people try to hide from their anxieties, fears, anger, worries and self doubts by shifting their attention elsewhere. Distraction alone is not the solution to the torments of life.” The purpose of Reynold’s book is to assist readers problem solve when confronted with discomforting emotions. He writes that “handling life’s problems is purposely redirecting attention and engaging in constructive action—that is doing something about the problem that caused the upset in the first place. The goal is not to ignore or suppress feelings but to accept them as they happen to be at the moment and then go on doing what is sensible and mature anyway” (1984).
Problem solving is dandy in theory. Our path is blocked, instead of blind meandering through the wilderness, we blaze our own trail. This ideal is quaint and motivating. However, problem solving doesn’t always work. When problem solving is our only avenue to wellness, we struggle to manipulate factors that we have no control over.
Many experiences outmatch our intellect and resourcefulness. Our minds churn to find an answer that doesn’t exist. Overreliance on problem solving exposes profound ignorance to the complexities of life. Some goals are unattainable. Some emotions are dysfunctional, signaling deeper problems than the current stressor.
Susan David reminds that, “But in other situations, emotions dredge up old business, confusing our perceptions of what’s happening in the moment with painful past experiences” (2016, Location 71).
Sometimes emotions must be managed before effective thinking can intervene. In severe cases, medical and professional intervention is necessary. This is not because weakness of will or faulty character but because we are human, full of imperfections, impacted by past environments in the womb, childhood, and trauma.
Many people experience dysregulated emotions. Sherry Van Dijk describes “dysregulation means that you react emotionally to things that most people wouldn’t typically react to, your reaction is more intense than the situation warrants, and it takes you longer than the average person to recover from it” (2012, p. 2). Our dysregulated emotions often point to the wrong problems. Our internal guidance system knows something is wrong but points to the wrong solutions.
We must have other avenues to sooth these disrupting emotions.
Cognitive reappraisal is a staple of many therapies. Effective reappraisal of emotionally hot experiences is a foundational goal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive reappraisal is an executive function that reframes emotionally stimulating situations to change their meaning, creating a more manageable narrative. Positivity is one of the more popular uses of reappraisal, taking a negative or neutral event and giving it a positive spin.
In Aesop’s wonderful fable of the fox and the sour grapes, we encounter an often used reappraisal.
"What a fool I am," he said. "Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for." Aesop's Sour Grapes
Something I recently used when an application was rejected “for a job I probably didn’t want anyway.” The cognitive flexibility to shift, allows the blows of disappointment to be softened. The fox protected his ego by not berating his inability to jump, or his lack of creativity to find a solution. He excused the failure by downgrading the reward missed.
Cognitive reappraisal has some drawbacks. Some deeper examinations lead to successful resolutions and personal growth. The full brunt of reality, taking failure head-on, sometimes is too much. Our critical self-evaluations, instead of leading to growth, may motivate a psychological shutdown—learned helplessness. In the case of our dear friend the fox, perhaps the grapes were simply too high, requiring too many resources for even a small taste of the tempting fruit. The fox’s effort, time and cognitive energy would be best used elsewhere. Instead of ruminating over what he missed, he relabels the value of the fruit, “I don’t want sour grapes,” and moves to a more attainable pursuit.
John Milton, a seventeenth century poet, wrote. “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Cognitive reappraisal slaps a label on the complexity of causes, freeing our mind from draining ruminations. The goal of most therapies is to reduce maladaptive thinking and increase adaptive thought. When our nights are haunted with I-should-have-done thoughts, we need to shift the narrative. The past is gone, bring attention to the positive, and find release. We can pound our self-worth to oblivion through over analysis, denigrating our effort, character, and skill. These faulty rumination do little to improve our lives. We need a better narrative.
Healthy reappraisal is an art, creating beautiful narratives we can believe and embrace, bending difficult experience into healthy motivation and continued growth.
Mindfulness is more than a passing fad. Science backs this eastern practice, supporting ancient claims of wellness. Sometimes our emotional system sputters, locked on to emotionally hot triggers, not allowing the mind to effectively operate. Problem solving and healthy cognitive reappraisals can’t succeed in the heat of battle. Mindful practices of acceptance can soften the impact of these bullying emotions, calming our system, and freeing us from emotional captivity.
We don’t have to act on thoughts and feelings. We can acknowledge them without doing anything. Russ Harris calls this a diffusion strategy. He explains, “rather than attempting to change, avoid, or get rid of unpleasant feelings, our aim is to accept them. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings; it just means you stop struggling with them” He further adds, “acceptance is about embracing life not merely tolerating it. Acceptance literally means “taking what is offered.” It doesn’t mean giving up or admitting defeat; it doesn’t mean just gritting your teeth and bearing it. It means fully opening yourself to your present reality—acknowledging how it is, right here and now, and letting go of the struggle with life as it is in the moment” (2008).
Acceptance is a powerful tool. Often emotions rage. We seek the easiest escape to sooth the momentary hurt (see Delay of Gratification). David Richo’s beautiful book Five Things We Cannot Change is about acceptance. He teaches that, “we can learn to accept life on its own terms. We can craft a sane and authentic life by saying yes to life just as it is” (2006). A lot of emotion is waisted with faulty expectations, wishing life were something it will never be. The obstruction, in these cases, isn’t a problem to be solved, but our own misguided beliefs.
Acceptance can calm our tormented souls, bring peace to our unsettled minds, and sooth emotions falsely programmed to fight the realities of this universe.
No Single Solution
There is no blueprint for successful emotional regulation. Strategies differ in effectiveness with the dynamic shifting of context. Some emotions are natural responses drawing attention to areas where attention should be focused. Other emotions are relics of faulty learning or biological malfunctions. The complexity of causes requires a flexible approach. We must be capable of adjusting to the situation, jumping from one technique to another as circumstances evolve. Our confidence grows not from having a serviceable coping skill but from repeated experience of successfully coping skill when emotions rattle our doors and shake our windows.
We may never smoothly sail through the emotional events of life. We can, however, find a way to cope, managing stress through a variety of methods. We humans are resourceful. We survive traumatic circumstances. So, along with your variety of regulating tools, embrace hope, we can make it through, the sorrow will dissipate, and the sun will rise, warming our world once again. And perhaps, the storm will knock those grapes from the high branch and we will discover that they are not sour after all.
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Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 217-237.
Bandura, A. (1977) Self Efficacy: Towards a unifying theory of Behavior change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT. Trumpeter; Illustrated Edition.
Mate, G. (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st Edition.
Reynolds, D. K. (1984) Constructive Living. Kolowalu Books.
Richo, D. (2006). The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. Shambhala; Reprint Edition
Van Dijk, S. (2012). Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. New Harbinger Publications; Original Edition.
Yoon, S. & Rottenberg, J. (2020). Why Do People with Depression Use Faulty Emotion Regulation Strategies. Emotion Review, 12(2), 118-128.