Do you ever wish that you could have better control over your emotions? Being able to control your emotions means you are more likely to make better choices, rather than rash decisions in the heat of the moment that you might regret when your brain chemistry settles back down. In the following blog, I will share five super basic emotional regulation strategies that can help you feel more empowered and in control, which will lead to feeling less stressed. How great would that be considering the state of our world?
First, I want to talk a little more about regulating emotions and how important it can be. Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of witnessing a young man share his inspiring story of overcoming drug and alcohol addiction. Beside the fact that I was blown away by his honesty and vulnerability in front of over 100 people, I was extremely impressed by his wisdom as he specifically talked about how his lack of ability to regulate his emotions contributed to the development of his addiction. He also talked about using drugs as a coping mechanism to assist with his lack of ability to navigate his emotional responses, which I thought was very insightful. I started to reflect back on my own addiction to food and laxatives and think about this ever-present problem we have: How can young people find a way to obtain emotional regulation skills at an earlier age so that they are not as vulnerable to addiction and other mental illnesses? This made me think about an organization dedicated to helping with that very cause.
Several weeks ago, I was introduced to a young and very inspiring woman named Niki Aviv. Her mom, Robin, helped found a group called Generation S.O.S., which stands for Sharing Our Stories. The Mission: Youth empowering youth to make informed choices about substance use. The Vision: Overcoming the stigma that keeps America from tackling this health crisis head on. For those looking for specific ways to regulate emotions, there are a ton of resources and groups out there like this one and I believe they are making a huge difference with youth communities, in particular.
Niki & Robin Aviv
On a smaller scale, we can all practice regulating emotions on a daily basis with small and big events. Emotion regulation is the importance of being aware of your emotions and labeling them accordingly. Understanding your emotions and how you do or don’t regulate them can provide clarity into how you respond emotionally to your challenges (both big and small). Since we are used to acting or reacting to our emotions, controlling them can be challenging. Don’t worry! I promise you that practicing the following techniques will allow you to feel more in control, which will make it easier to feel better.
Tip #1: Count to 5
Sure, you might think that this is a silly one or too simple, but if you give this a try and practice, you will find out that this simple trick actually works. You can either just pause and count or you can pause and think about something calming like the ocean or green grass. If you find that you are more likely to become emotionally reactive in certain places or with certain people, then I suggest creating a flash card or maybe a few with reminders 1-2-3-4-5 ( you can go up to 10 if you need...).
Tip #2: Remind yourself that negative or painful emotions are NOT bad
Can you imagine a world where feeling sad or anxious or angry (or whatever feeling it is you consider to be bad or negative) is an acceptable type of emotion? A world where you accept feeling sad or angry the same way you accept feeling happy or excited? Emotions come and go and they are just a part of what we do. No judgment and no shame or guilt is linked to these emotions. How would your behavior be affected if you came to accept these things? I can tell you one thing for SURE: You will feel a lot better than you do when practicing negative self-talk and telling yourself that you are a weak person for feeling this way. If you don't believe me, then stop reading after the following exercise:
Imagine that you just disappointed your boss and he is extremely angry after you handed him a project. He calls you and yells at you and you are left feeling frustrated, sad, and angry. You then tell yourself the following: “Stop feeling this way, you are a weak and stupid person. You always mess up and then you cry like a little baby and feel sorry for yourself. Get over these stupid feelings and pretend like nothing happened.”
How do you imagine you will feel if this is what you told yourself about feeling this way?
Now, take the same scenario and imagine that instead of telling yourself that you are a weak and stupid person, you tell yourself the following: “You did your best and it is OKAY to feel sadness and anger because you were hoping to provide your boss with better results and you didn't get what you hoped for. Learn from your mistakes and hopefully you will feel better next time you hand in a project.
How do you think you will feel if you accepted your negative feelings? I hope that I have made this point clear and that you will allow yourself to just experience your feelings and not push them away or internalize them or be reactive. This leads me to the next tip...
Tip # 3: Learn to understand and label your emotions
One of the most powerful tools in emotion regulation is simply identifying and naming the emotion you are feeling. Understanding and describing our emotions can be a very challenging process that also requires a great deal of patience. You might not always know how you feel or why you might feel this way, and sometimes you might not even have the right words to describe what it is that you are feeling. However, in order for you to be able to manage and regulate your emotional experience, it is vital that you understand and describe your experience.
Imagine feeling extremely sad. Think about what actions you might take. You might distract yourself by playing on your phone or reading emails. You might direct your negative feelings onto someone else. It is very possible that you actually practice healthy coping skills such as calling a friend. But what if you simply label your emotion and even write it down: “I am feeling sad…” No judgment. No interference. Just giving that feeling the appropriate name.
Tip # 4: Let go of painful emotions
If naming or accepting doesn't work at least at the beginning, then you have to let the emotions go. Sure, easier said than done...but I promise that if you try to do this for several weeks you will be successful and so much happier! Let's think about how you can actually go about doing this. Consider the following situation:
You come home after a full day of work and your wife is complaining that you are not helping with the housework. You are feeling angry and unappreciated and you are starting to sweat. You stop breathing for a few seconds and your initial reaction is to yell at your wife and tell her how unappreciative she is and how hard your day was. Anger keeps building BUT instead of exploding and ruining what could potentially be a nice evening you let your negative feelings go and you say the following, “I am going to help more tomorrow…”
You might be wondering how you can let go of such strong negative feelings just like that. Is that possible? Of course it is. It might require some practice but I know that you can achieve that. If letting go of negative feelings is very challenging then try to imagine that you are putting your feelings into a box or a balloon—somewhere where they will not go anywhere or disappear. They are simply relocated to a place that is separate than your body so that you can think better and act in a more rational way. What do you think? Is this something that you can consider? Even if just for one day?
Tip # 5: Use the STOPP technique
The STOPP technique (Vivyan, 2015) is one of my most favorite ones. It incorporates aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which I’ve written about in previous blogs, that help you have more control over your thoughts and emotions. I actually recommend that people write this on a piece of paper and pull it out when they are feeling overwhelmed. In some ways, it summarizes several tips, but I think you will find that you are capable of practicing more than just one technique at a time. STOPP stands for the following:
S = Stop what you are doing. Just pause.
T = Take a breath. Notice your breathing and just breath in and out.
O = Observe your thoughts and ask yourself what it is that you are reacting to. Observe your bodily sensations/reactions.
P = Pull back and put things in perspective. What is the bigger picture? What if you just watched the situation from above? What would you tell your best friend if they experienced what you just did?
P = Practice and persistence. Ask yourself the following questions: What is the best thing that I can do right now? For myself? For others?
What are your thoughts after reading these tips? Which one do you think you are willing to try? I think that the fact that you are reading this with the intention of improving your life and learning how to regulate your emotions is the start of something that is positive and it is important that you give yourself credit for that.
If you or your loved one would like to consult with one of our mental health professionals and obtain further support, we are here to listen and help in any way we can. Contact us or book a complimentary consultation today!