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Emotion Regulation

Jan 22, 2022 | Managing Emotions

A common issue that is raised in therapy is emotion regulation. Limitations in the ability to emotionally regulate affects many people.

What Is Emotion Regulation?

We all feel emotions every day. Some emotions are helpful, some can be unhelpful. Some emotions make us feel and perform better. Others get in the way of us doing things. In extreme cases emotions make us believe that we are not able to cope, or they rob us of the motivation to go about our usual activities.

Emotion regulation is the capacity to experience the emotion and not be controlled by it. Emotion regulation is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience.

Most of us apply emotion regulation to control our responses. We can deal with emotions and their effects in a number of ways; sometimes the strategies we apply are helpful and, for some people, unhelpful strategies (such as avoidance, use of drugs or alcohol) can be unhelpful and sometimes even harmful.

Do We Always Regulate Emotions?

All of us have the capacity to regulate or control our emotions. We all have that ability. However, some people do it better than others. It seems that certain types of people often find it difficult to control themselves and their emotions.

For example, expressions of anger, especially extreme forms of anger, can result from a person’s inability to properly regulate or control their emotions.

Am I saying that some emotions like anger are always bad? No. It is natural to feel emotional at times. There will be those occasions and experiences (for example, grief after losing a loved one) that can be strongly felt and result in us either doing things we would not usually do or stopping us from doing things at all. This is usual. It is also to be expected for us to feel angry about some things that happen to us or to others around us.

We should not try and completely stop ourselves from feeling emotions. But we do need to do something about an emotion if it is having negative or unhelpful consequences on us or those around us. And we definitely need to do something if it is harming ourselves or others.     

Is This a Mental Illness?

The inability to properly regulate our emotions can be a symptom of mental illness or condition. However, it is the case that there are people who do not have a mental illness and who, nonetheless, have difficulties properly regulating emotions. For example, there are some high functioning individuals – such as managers, CEOs and the like – who experience difficulties controlling their emotions.

What Are the Consequences?

There can be many negative consequences from an inability to regulate emotions.

There are consequences for the individual. There are many studies that indicate that an inability to control emotions can lead to poor mental health and physical health outcomes. For example, there is evidence to suggest a connection between cardiovascular disease and an inability to control one’s emotions.

But this can be expressed positively. When a person is better able to control or regulate their emotions, they have an increased capacity to deal with a range of mental health issues. Their mental health generally improves. This can occur for people experiencing anxiety or depression or other issues such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The inability to properly regulate emotions can also have consequences for people surrounding the individual. No where is this seen better than with people who occupy positions of leadership. Leaders who effectively manage their own emotions are more effective leaders of others. Leaders who regulate well, do well, and so does the team that they lead. However, a manager who lacks the ability to control their emotions can (and often will) make life difficult and even miserable for those around them. Whether it is the person who is feeling the brunt of the manager’s emotional outbursts, or the onlooker, it can be unsettling and even upsetting for people to experience.

(Why do some managers act this way? There are any number of reasons. Sometimes it is because they lack emotional intelligence. It may also occur to overcome deep-seated beliefs of inadequacy, or because they are experiencing a personality disorder. The reasons are many.)

What Can Be Done?

It is possible to learn and apply techniques that help us to more effectively control our emotions.

These techniques are not about trying to stop us from feeling an emotion. To feel emotional is part of the usual human experience. Rather, these techniques can be used so that we control our emotions and help us from being a slave to our emotions.  

In any situation it is likely that there will be a series of points or opportunities that will allow us to recognise what is going on around us, how we may be feeling and how we may be acting. These opportunities will give us the chance to:-

  • Change the situation. (e.g. move away form a source of annoyance)
  • Alter what is occupying our attention (e.g. divert our attention on to something else that is less annoying or disturbing)
  • Re-appraise the situation (e.g. try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective or reach another understanding of the situation)
  • Change the way we respond (e.g. rather than reacting by yelling, consider what is the best way to respond for everyone – ourselves and others around us)

If none of this works, or does not work completely, we may need to exercise acceptance.

Some people will be able to do these things, or a combination of them, more easily than others. Some people may even need assistance from a psychologist or other professional to help them. However, everyone has the potential to apply these strategies.

And if we are experiencing the effects of out-of-control emotions from others? Often the best response is the first: change the situation. If people are acting inappropriately toward you, there is no reason why you should tolerate it. Move away. And calmly consider the best way for you to respond. By doing this, you will be emotionally regulating.