Emotion Regulation: What It Is, and Why You Need It

Stressors are an unavoidable part of life. Right now, you might be feeling stressed about grades, graduation, picking a major or career, and leaving home. Learning how to handle these stressors in healthy ways now will benefit your mental and physical health in the long run. It may even positively impact your relationships.

As a psychotherapist with Dr. Quintal & Associates in Southwest Florida, I frequently help clients learn to cope with their feelings through Emotion Regulation — the process of recognizing how you’re feeling, holding space for yourself, and soothing in healthy ways.

In their book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski write: “Emotions are cycles that happen in your body. … They are an involuntary neurological response. They have a beginning, middle, and an end.” So, the goal of emotion regulation is not to stop ourselves from feeling uncomfortable emotions, but to move through the cycle to its end.

Name the feeling.

• Often by simply naming the feeling we experience some relief.

• Notice how your body feels. When you are mad, maybe your face feels hot or flushed; when you are scared, your heart races and you breathe rapidly. When you’re anxious, you may feel sick to your stomach. Your body will tell you what is going on before your brain does, so tune in!

• Look up resources online for help identifying the sensations; try Gloria Willcox’s tool the Feeling Wheel.”

Take a mindful approach to your feelings.

• Notice your self-talk. Is it negative? “Ugh, I am anxious again, I am so sick of feeling anxious! Why can’t I just be normal?” Approaching your feelings with curiosity and without judgment will shift your relationship with them. Try this: “I am feeling anxious today; this is uncomfortable. I am going to find a way to soothe myself through it.” Treat yourself with care rather than disdain.

Practice self-soothing until the feeling passes.

• Feelings are temporary and cyclical; they will pass. Only when we try to avoid or numb them do they persist.

• Consider what activity might be soothing for that feeling. The possibilities are endless and include: crying, journaling, talking to someone, wrapping up in a cozy blanket, taking a shower, listening to music, or exercising. You can try 4-7-8 breaths (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, exhale for 8), or repeatedly clench your fists and release them.

Our feelings won’t hurt us, but the lengths we go to in order to avoid them will. If we view our feelings as messages instead, we can soothe ourselves in a way that is nurturing. Numbing or avoiding feelings with excessive substances, food, sex, relationships, video games, or social media gives only temporary relief — and reinforces patterns that lead to further problems.

Robert Frost said it best: “The best way out is always through.”

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