We all have our own ways of regulating our emotions, perhaps you count to 10, go for a walk or engage in positive self-talk. Or perhaps you don’t bother with regulating at all and just express exactly what you feel in the moment. Most of us probably don’t take that approach otherwise our relationships and jobs could be in serious jeopardy!
Expressing our emotions in a genuine and vulnerable way is important for our own mental health and building trust with others. When we are honest about what we feel we are true to ourselves, strengthen our relationships and manage our emotions before they fester. As well as expressing our emotions appropriately there are times when we need to regulate our emotions – in other words we proactively shift ourselves from one emotion to another. So if there is an emotion we don’t want to have we can recognise that and move away from it. This is an advanced emotional intelligence skill and one that most of us are trying to master all of the time.
In Marc Brackett’s bestselling book, Permission to Feel, he outlines five broad regulation strategies. I have explained these and suggested some techniques that may help you.
Practising mindful breathing means that we focus our attention on our breath. This takes us out of our heads and back into our body where we just notice the rise and fall of our breath. By slowing down the breathing we relieve some of the tension in our body that is activated when we are in flight, fight, freeze mode.
“Mindful Breathing helps us to hit the brake on the activation of our stress response system by decreasing our heart rate”Marc Brackett
Practising mindful breathing every day is helpful whether you are experiencing negative emotions or not. By doing this practice daily you train your brain to move away from negative and destructive thoughts and to notice emotions come and go without overreacting to them. Bracket says that just 15 minutes of mindful breathing daily can positively affect our how attuned we are to friends and family, emotional reactivity, attention, memory, immune function and mental health.
For these strategies to work we need to have the self-awareness and foresight to know ahead of time what people/situations will trigger us. We can then plan to avoid, manage or mitigate the impact of the situation. Avoidance may be appropriate in some situations, for example, you can avoid going to the mall on a Friday afternoon to avoid the stress of parking and navigating the crowds. However, avoidance will not work for important personal or work-related situations. A more helpful forward-looking strategy is to manage the situation by planning ahead. This could look like considering all the possible questions in a job interview to alleviate nerves or playing out a difficult situation in your head. Visualization strategies can also work as you image the best possible outcome of a particular scenario. Doing something you love is a good strategy for mitigating negative experiences, plan a pleasurable experience in advance to relieve the stress of your bad day/week/meeting.
Attention Shifting Strategies
Attention Shifting Strategies are probably ones that we all use every day. They can be very helpful in the short term, but some may have long term negative consequences. Attention shifting is when you focus your attention elsewhere to temper the emotion you are experiencing. For example, if you are feeling bored and you put on Netflix you have tempered the emotion of boredom. If you are stressed at work and pick up your phone you are doing the same thing. You might also divert your attention with food, alcohol, exercise or social activities. As I said, some have negative consequences if used repeatedly! An attention shifting strategy without the downside is engaging n positive self-talk. This is a mind diversion exercise where you notice your negative self-talk and switch to a narrative that is more upbeat, positive and accurate!
Reframing is when we seek alternative ways of viewing things. There is always more than one way to view a situation, often we choose the negative viewpoint and it takes some work to see the positive or lighter side of a situation. To reframe we can consider the situation from the perspective of the other person and assume their best intension. We can also become aware of the facts of the situation versus the stories that the mind is concocting. Find evidence against these stories and consider alternative viewpoints. Another reframing strategy is to consider how important this issue is to you in your life on a scale of 1-10. Often we have high emotions over things that in the long term have little to no impact on our life.
The Meta Moment
The meta moment is a pause, it involves hitting the brakes and stepping out of time. You can use this strategy to pause for a few seconds before responding or acting. In the meta moment, you pause and take a breath and ask – what would my best self do right now? This redirects your attention and forces you to connect with your own values. At this moment you can also ask yourself other questions that help you to choose the right path and connect you to a different emotion. For example, How can I show compassion for this person? How can I make myself clear without upsetting this person? How have I dealt with similar situations before? What do I want to avoid happening?
Regulating emotions requires brain power and it is hard work! It is the most complex and demanding of all the EQ skills. Therefore your success at it depends on other factors such as diet, health, sleep, work-life balance and exercise. All of these strategies will fail if you are permanently tired or overstressed with your work. When we are in these exhausted states we do not have the mental and emotional capacity to regulate ourselves. Doing things we love helps us to have overall better well-being and resilience. Connect with friends, peruse your passions and pleasures and spend quality time each day with family.