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What is emotion regulation and where do I find it?

Alright, I’m guilty! I use the phrase “emotion regulation” in a lot of different scenarios and I rarely actually explain myself. Being able to regulate and manage emotions is a primary goal that I work on in therapy, but I am not so explicit in talking with parents about what this means and what it is.

To me, emotion regulation is being able to ride the waves of our feelings so that our feelings do not take control over us. When I say take control over us, some people may think of throwing tables or yelling, but our emotions can hijack us in more subtle ways as well. Our emotions take control over us when they feel so scary or overwhelming that we cannot even acknowledge them or talk about them, and they take control over us when we change our lives or schedules around to prevent certain emotional states. Experiencing emotions intensely does not necessarily mean that the emotions will take control over us. It is possible to experience emotions intensely and to be able to regulate or manage them. To do that, we need to recognizename, and communicate our emotions.
 
Recognizing our emotions.

Emotions are information. They tell us when we like something or do not like something and when we are in danger and need to act. Emotions occur on a physiological level (i.e., in our bodies and brains), and as a result, there are often corresponding physiological cues our bodies give off. For example, when you are anxious you might feel butterflies, when you are mad you might feel hot, and when you are happy your body might feel loose. Tuning into what our body is doing gives us an important clue as to how we might be feeling.

Naming our emotions.

Once we can recognize what our body is doing, we can put language to it. Butterflies and nausea may get labeled as anxiety, and feeling tension and warmth in our bodies might get labeled as anger or frustration. When our feelings stay trapped in our bodies without a label, it tends to cause a lot of confusion and suffering. However, labeling our emotional experience helps us understand it better and is an important foundation for then knowing what to do about it. A popular phrase in the therapy world to help you remember this is “Name it to tame it.”

Communicating our emotions.

We need to go one step further than naming our emotions and actually do something with them (in other words, process them). This can occur with a supportive other and in whatever format feels helpful (e.g., talking, drawing, writing). There’s no right or wrong way to do this step, as long as you’re naming and feeling your feelings.

Emotion Regulation and the Brain

Like many complex human processes, there are several brain parts responsible for our emotions – the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and limbic system are the main players. One of the most interesting (or most scary depending on how you are looking at it) things that our brains do with emotions is match them to the emotions of other people. This is sometimes referred to as emotional contagion, and often happens without our awareness. When I say emotional contagion, some of you may have a picture in your mind of a bunch of people running around screaming, but it is often more subtle than this. As parents, I think this happens more often than we want it to. If we notice our kids getting frustrated or dysregulated, we can begin to get irritated or short with them (and, let’s be honest, there have definitely been times that we respond to a tantrum with, well, a tantrum of our own by yelling or shouting). This usually does not turn out well for everybody involved. Which is why it is so important for us as the parents (with more developed brains) to be able to recognize what is happening and take steps to remain calm (in other words, not let our emotions take over). Do you see where I’m going with this? Calm is also contagious! If we remain calm, that helps our children better regulate. But let’s be honest, it might take them a little while and a bit of practice, because their brains are still developing. So, don’t expect them to immediately calm down or to be able to calm down quickly. It takes repeated practice.

Here’s another interesting thing that the brain does when we are emotionally dysregulated (e.g., our emotions are taking over) – it makes it harder for us to access our executive functioning skills, like focusing, planning, and problem solving. That means there’s no reasoning with a kiddo that is getting increasingly emotional. It also means that we as parents are not going to respond to our child in the most planful, intentional way if we are getting upset or emotional. And, we’re the adults, so it’s on us to come from a more calm and focused space.

Find Your Calm

I used to think that mindfulness and meditation was a bunch of fluff – seriously. I had my own internal block about these strategies. As more and more research came out about the benefits of mindfulness, the logical side of my brain made me give it a shot. Now, it’s a really important tool to help me slow down my brain and tune in to what is happening for me on the inside. When I can do this well (which is not nearly frequently enough), I can hold a lot more of other people’s emotions and upset. When I don’t slow down and tune in to what is happening for me on the inside, well, life can get a bit chaotic and frustrating (think screaming at your crying one-year-old: “I’m doing the best I can!”)

Now I don’t really care what your calm is, as long as it works! Now when I say works, I really only have 3 conditions here. 1. It cannot cause negative consequences for you or your family. 2. It does what it is supposed to do and actually helps you slow down your mind and tune in to your body. For some people this could be exercising, reading for pleasure, taking a walk, creating, doing yoga, driving, or gardening. The important thing here is that the activity is not necessarily going to make you feel better or make it so that you never react to a tantrum or to the upset of your child. The goal is to create space to monitor our own experiences and reactions, which is a necessary foundation for being able to take steps to feel better and handle life situations better. 3. We are using it intentionally. We know when we need to slow down and pay attention to our internal world, and we use it during these times.

Whenever I implement any strategies or skills, these are the 3 things I am thinking of. The strategy is effective, we use it for its intended purpose, and it is sustainable (meaning there aren’t any negative consequences).  

The Pause

In my clinical work, I have seen a lot of suffering come from responses to situations that seem or feel automatic. For example, there are automatic thoughts (e.g., “I’m not worthy,” “I don’t deserve this,” “It’s always going to be this way for me”) that often contribute to a lot of suffering. There are also seemingly automatic responses (e.g., responding to emotional upset with upset, responding to fear, embarrassment, sadness or shame with anger, blurting out the first thing that comes to mind without thinking through it). These are pathways that we have created in our brain that are so heavily used that they feel almost automatic. What if we could train our brains to recognize these responses and try a new pathway? I think it’s possible, but it involves being able to slow down.

Everything moves quickly – society, our work, our children, and our brains. We can unknowingly and sometimes unwillingly match the pace of life around us to keep up. But we don’t have to. Finding time in our day to slow down and check in with ourselves about how we are feeling and what we need is the first step in changing these well-worn but not always well meaning pathways. We can’t change them if we are not aware of them in the first place (name it to tame it), and we can’t become aware of them until we give ourselves the space to do it.

Find time in your day, even for 5 minutes, to slow down. Is it at the beginning of the day? Right when you get home from work? At the end of the night while your kids are in bed? Create the space and ask yourself:
  • What am I feeling?
  • What’s happening in my body?
  • What am I thinking?

​Be curious and collect data. Your brain is well trained to keep doing what it is currently doing, and it will take some practice (okay maybe a lot of practice) and some data to get it to do something different. If your child is in therapy, this is also likely what they are learning to do in therapy (though it might look a little different for them). Practicing and working on the same goal together can improve the results!
 

Author

​Dr. Danielle Mohr is a licensed psychologist at Wolff Child Psychology. She specializes in comprehensive evaluations for children, teens, and young adults, and she conducts regular individual and family sessions.

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