We all experience emotions with a huge subjective component. Most of us can recognize the emotions we experience, and sometimes we don’t know what to do with them.
Whether it is trauma, a bad day, a terrible event, uncontrolled anger, pent-up stress, or unadulterated anxiety and sadness, emotions and thoughts manifest in ways we don’t particularly want.
What do we do then?
Speaking from a psychological point of view, we engage in emotional regulation.
In this detailed how-to post, we will explore 7 emotional regulation strategies which can be used without much assistance. That is, these techniques are for you to keep in your personal mental health management tool-box.
- What is emotional regulation?
7 highly targeted emotional regulation and self-regulation skills
- 1. Use 3rd person self-talk and refer to yourself by your own name
- 2. Convert emotionally loaded thoughts into practical concerns
- 3. Use structured breathing to regulate your body and reduce perceived pain
- 4. Hone your Interoceptive sense to understand your body’s reactions
- 5. Listen to music
- 6. Connect with nature and natural lifeforms
- 7. Learn to tolerate aversive emotions
- Bad emotional regulation strategies which probably won’t help
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage, modify, and utilize emotions in useful ways. We regulate emotions in many ways, some healthy and some unhealthy. Healthy emotional regulation involves taking breaks, having conversations, blowing off steam via a hobby, exercising, etc. Unhealthy emotional regulation involves self-harm, picking fights, drinking to avoid pain, etc.
A major part of emotional regulation is the reappraisal of emotionally loaded thoughts. Whether one is regulating emotions in-the-moment or working on regulating recurring emotional thoughts, reappraisal addresses the “content” within emotions. Reappraisal allows changing the interpretation of memories, managing attention and focusing on constructive details rather than destructive details, rephrasing of emotions, etc.
With emotional regulation, you can better adapt to the psychological, social, behavioral, and mental health needs in a particular context in a healthy growth-oriented manner. It is also helpful in reducing maladaptive and inappropriate behaviors.
Emotional regulation, or affect regulation, (affect refers to mood, experience, and the “goodness vs. badness” of an emotion) is a part of a broader framework called self-regulation.
Self-regulation includes everything from your fight or flight response to meditation, including how your sympathetic nervous system responds to threatening stimuli and how your parasympathetic nervous system tries to restore optimal functioning. It includes daily routines which help cope with stress. It includes how you behave in social situations. It includes how you deal with conflicts. You get the point right? One way to conceptualize self-regulation is “All mental and physical activities, conscious or unconscious, which help monitor, modify, and control thoughts, behavior, and emotions.”
That’s quite a broad way of looking at things, so we are going to focus on emotional self-regulation or emotional regulation. Apart from what we do in our day-to-day lives based on our experience of what works for us, there are some additional techniques you can use to deal with stress, manage anxiety, cope with sadness & pain, and regain clarity in thought.
Let’s get right to it now, here are 7 powerful evidence-based emotional regulation techniques.
7 highly targeted emotional regulation and self-regulation skills
There are literally 100s of ways you can regulate emotions. Some techniques are simple activities like watching Netflix and some are complex long-term activities like creating a new life full of meaning and purpose. If improving your overall well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction is your goal, I HIGHLY recommend you read this post first. It is based on dozens of validated research insights.
We can’t go through all of them so we are looking at strategies to regulate emotions that you can use on-demand.
Some of these techniques need a little bit of practice and that is why I want you to treat this post as a set of instructions instead of some superficial psychological advice.
If you really want to manage your own emotions constructively and learn to cope with stressful anxiety-inducing thoughts, you need to learn how to implement these emotional and self-regulation techniques. Simply consuming this information won’t help.
This means that you’ve got some work to do.
1. Use 3rd person self-talk and refer to yourself by your own name
Research shows that self-talk, when done in 3rd person, can be an effective method of emotional self-regulation. It provides the necessary psychological distance between the self and anxiety-inducing contexts. This also helps when you are thinking about negative events and ruminating anxiety-ridden thoughts. This psychological distance allows a person to reflect on themselves in a less emotional way similar to how they would reflect on some other person. The self is often emotionally charged in moments of anxiety.
The process is straightforward. Instead of ‘I, me, and we’ you can use ‘Your name, he, she, them’. Here is an example – I am disgusting can change to Aditya is disgusting.
I recommend that you read this post which describes why this works. If you don’t want to read it, here is a short recap – Talking in the 3rd person increases the construal level. The construal level describes the depth at which you process ideas, concepts, details, etc.
High construal is distant, abstract, and global. For example – I am enjoying sports right now. The details are vague but the essence is captured. High construal is a distant view.
Low construal is specific, detailed, and local. For example – I am enjoying Novak Djokovic’s French Open semi-final. Low construal is an intimate view.
Increasing the construal by using your own name or addressing yourself in the 3rd person (he/she/they) can decrease the effect of negative emotions contained in that sentence.
A high-level construal makes it easier to exert self-control and emotional control. It also devalues activities that undermine self-control. So your innate encouragement to do harmful activities is reduced. This may help you to discontinue or disengage from activities that disturb self-control.
Best used for: Managing anger, worry, anxiety, and the intensity of all emotions
2. Convert emotionally loaded thoughts into practical concerns
This is a 2 pronged approach that can easily help with mild social anxiety and nervousness. It is also a long-term habit that can buffer against intense anxiety.
- Mindfulness and labeling: In this step, you begin paraphrasing your context and summarize your thoughts in any way you can.
- Constructive rephrasing: You take your thoughts and summary and then rephrase it in the most useful way possible. Instead of going ‘All hell is breaking loose, and I have fucked up’ you can use ‘Things are not looking good and I need to do something. What can I do? Will it help if I do XYZ? There is no point in thinking of the end of everything. How can I repair the situation?’
Note: It’ll be better if this rephrasing is done in the 3rd person (point 1).
Here is a more detailed description of this process. It contains a list of emotion words that you can use to improve the way you interpret your thoughts and feelings. Research shows that knowing how to conceptualize one’s emotions form a part of emotional regulation.
Best used for: Dealing with stress, frustration, social anxiety, and interpersonal conflict
3. Use structured breathing to regulate your body and reduce perceived pain
Follow the next 4 steps to know how to breathe deeply to regulate anxiety and related emotions.
- Breathe in deep from your nose slowly and gently
- Breathe out deep from your mouth slowly and gently
- Count 1 to 5 while breathing in and out if it helps
- Close your eyes and focus your undivided attention on your breathing
Deep breathing works with a number of mechanisms. It offers psychological distance from the anxiety-inducing context. It counteracts the physiological responses of anxiety – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, freeze response, muscular tension, etc. Self-guided slow and deep breathing also reduces pain.
In short, deep breathing is very helpful in alleviating pain and relaxing. It can be a handly self-regulatory tool for anyone who faces crippling anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, extreme mental discomfort, or physical pain-induced psychological discomfort.
Best used for: Relaxing and managing pain
4. Hone your Interoceptive sense to understand your body’s reactions
We have many senses and one of the lesser-known ones is Interoception. It is that sense which describes bodily sensations and the details of internal functioning with respect to the interaction between the brain and the body.
Being aware of these bodily sensations (arousal, breathing, muscle tension, heart rate, sweating, etc.), or having interoceptive awareness, is important in emotional regulation because this awareness downregulates emotions and helps the neural processing behind self-regulation. This means that being aware of your bodily sensations can facilitate overall emotional control by being less sensitive to disturbances.
Interoceptive awareness can help you process the cues which trigger or amplify emotions beforehand and it can help you adjust your attention to constructive activities.
There is a technique to improve one’s interoceptive awareness. It is called Mindful Awareness Body-oriented Therapy (or MABT).
|Interoceptive Awareness -Stages
|Type of learning
|1. Awareness of bodily sensations
|Improved sensory awareness
|2. Access to techniques
|Training Interoceptive awareness exercises
|Reduced emotional distress and improved well-being
|3. Cognitive Appraisal
|Mindful body awareness practice
|Improved regulation and resilience
Here is how you can work on the 3 stages:
- Awareness: Learn about bodily sensations, where they happen, and why they happen. Learn to articulate them in words and describe a sensation.
- Access: Use techniques to guide your attention to focus on bodily sensations. You can begin by becoming aware of your own breathing and the associated body movement. You can then focus on the change in your muscle tension. You can guide your hand to touch and sense your internal experience from the outside. For example, touching the tensed-up muscle with your fingers can generate an awareness of what is happening. Muscle relaxation is a key aspect of regulating emotions which have a stress and anxiety component. Once that is done, the most important step is to sustain your awareness because that is when most people learn something new about themselves or their experience.
- Reappraisal: Reevaluate your experience and situation to modify your response to the experience. This step involves all sorts of cognitive reappraisal including semantic conversion, third-person self-talk, and guiding your attention to focus on appropriate details.
When it comes to dealing with complex emotions, there is a disconnect between your emotions and your awareness of everything else, including your body. MABT can help reduce this disengagement and convert it into a body-emotion engagement.
A related emotional regulation skill is mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness training is useful in weakening a fear response. In the study, participants experienced a diminished fear response via mindfulness-yoga meditation which included attentional regulation and sensory awareness. Yoga, as a general activity, is demonstrably useful in improving the quality of life and emotional well-being.
Best used for: Improving emotional and bodily awareness, changing behavior
5. Listen to music
The choice of music is important. But not in the traditional Genre sense. Listening to music you are a fan of has more benefits. For example, if you are a fan of heavy metal music, heavy metal can help you process anger constructively.
If you are feeling sad and you listen to sad music, the congruence between your emotion and mood can help with regulation. Sad music does not necessarily induce sadness. In fact, it can make us feel better. Research points to 3 common effects of listening to sad music – sweet sorrow (positive feelings associated with sadness), uplifting and comforting sorrow (improves mood), and genuine sadness (an experience of sadness).
Music and emotions have a bi-directional relationship. The choice of music can affect your mood and your mood can affect your choice. Most people have an intuitive sense of what they want from music. So, this is quite an easy way to regulate emotions.
When it comes to your relationship with music in the context of emotional regulation, there are 2 important factors to consider – cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Cognitive reappraisal is like the 2nd technique where you change the way you interpret and process emotional thoughts. Expressive suppression is changing the behavioral response (snapping, withdrawing, tantrums, etc.) by consciously stopping an undesired response. Research shows that music improves well-being when it allows cognitive reappraisal (music lets you re-interpret your thoughts and experiences). But it can negatively affect well-being if your go-to strategy is expressive suppression (using music to suppress your emotions).
Music can act as a distraction and help distance yourself from the emotionally loaded context. It can make you introspect, which is a necessary condition for cognitive reappraisal. It also promotes relaxation and happiness. Moreover, music may be an ideal companion for other emotional regulation skills like breathing or relaxing in nature. These factors, according to research, influence self-regulation, emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, and wellbeing.
What about emotional regulation in traumatized children? It may be hard to train them in breathing and third-person self-talk, so what would you do? The answer may be music, again. Music can be an effective passively induced active form of emotional regulation for children.
Best used for: Managing mood, distracting oneself from unpleasant experiences, feeling content, and being alone with your thoughts to introspect (not interoception) and reevaluate thoughts and feelings
6. Connect with nature and natural lifeforms
I’ll keep this one short. Humans have a natural affinity to connect with nature and its life forms. This includes wild animals, pets, plants, birds, ecosystems, rocks, grass, mountains, clouds, natural light, etc. Research shows that connecting with nature can improve one’s mood, help regulate stress and anxiety, cope with depression, and improve the quality of life.
It’s not just nature, even artificial environments like offices and houses with natural elements can help. What about virtual environments like games, videos, photos, and virtual realities? Turns out, they, too, have a positive effect on mental health and emotions in general, albeit with lesser potency.
This phenomenon of having a natural tendency to connect with nature is called Biophilia and acting on one’s biophilia can be good for mental health and overall well-being. Observe and absorb natural elements via all your senses as much as you can.
Best used for: Improving overall well-being, managing mood, and coping with mental health issues.
7. Learn to tolerate aversive emotions
We often have to tolerate unpleasant emotions. We’ve already seen that deep breathing can help manage the experienced pain. What about other unpleasant or aversive emotions like guilt, anxiety, anticipated catastrophe, anticipated failure, and expected outcomes which resonate with low self-esteem? These emotions form a major core of procrastination and procrastination-like behaviors.
Berking and Whitley describe a pretty useful method of dealing with these aversive emotions. Follow these instructions to learn how to tolerate negative emotions, and thereby positively affect behavior.
- First, you bring negative emotions into awareness, don’t suppress them
- Instruct yourself to tolerate the emotions
- Address the context of these emotions – does it involve low self-esteem, does it involve other people, does it involve a fear of failure, etc?
- Tell yourself you are resilient and strong
This is an excellent method to overcome procrastination and ride-along inevitable and unpleasant experiences.
You can buy Berking and Whitley’s book on affect regulation training here. (It’s an affiliate link, so I might earn a commission for no extra cost to you. It’s how I can sustain this blog:))
Best used for: Overcoming procrastination and tolerance building
There are more techniques that can help you remove the emotional load of negative thoughts. For those, Cognitive Defusion techniques would be very useful. They are more about changing the context of thoughts than changing the nature of thoughts. For some situations, those work better.
Bad emotional regulation strategies which probably won’t help
There are a number of things we do to regulate emotions that are considered to be unhealthy. On one end of the spectrum, we have things like using humor and on the other, we have things like humor turning into habitual meanness.
So what are some unhealthy emotional and self-regulation coping mechanisms?
- Redirecting hate and frustration onto someone else.
- Excessive smoking, drinking, or self-sabotaging behaviors that distract you from the emotional distress but ultimately create a new set of problems.
- Wild expressions of anger to make a point.
- Catharsis. Yup, there is some reason to believe that traditionally-known cathartic activities like shouting into a pillow and punching something inanimate can make things worse. Ideally, catharsis, or more specifically ‘abreaction’, should be done with a therapist who can advise better.
So that’s it. Practice these emotional self-regulation skills, techniques, and strategies and you’ll be in control of your emotions; without having to suppress them – only to let them decay on the inside.
Remember, You CAN gain control of your emotions in a healthy and uncompromising way. It just needs some work. Once you have these techniques in your mental-health toolbox, you can relax, cope with difficult situations, be calm and composed, and not lose it in your day-to-day life.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.