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The Necessity of Emotional Regulation

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By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

emotional regulationIn our societal context, we can scarcely go a day without creating an emotional response as part of our daily experience. Emotions can have a wide range of expression and intensity and simultaneously describe a spectrum of life’s experiences. Happiness, sadness, gratitude, anger, shame, guilt and fear are just a few of the universal experiences of human emotion. They can be responsible for revealing an individual’s inner person, giving voice to the innermost dimensions of the individual’s nature, radiating light on the individual’s moral character and producing glimpses into the person’s awareness and conscience.

Emotions can accurately expose vulnerabilities, disclose strengths, illumine life core values, and arrive into the space between people unheralded and in spontaneous fashion. Emotions have an uncanny effect of creating a state of knowing between people with steadfast speed, and regulating them will result in experiencing life more invigoratingly.

The Cost of Poor Emotional Regulation

Current research shows that different people use various strategies for emotional regulation, and these ultimately have costs and consequences for their well-being, emotional life and their quality of relationships. Dr. James Gross, pioneering emotions expert and psychologist of Stanford University, states, “emotions are not just things that happen inside a person, but also things that happen between people.” Social-personality psychologists and neuroscientists are breaking into new frontiers based on the revelation that expressing our emotions has consequences. By contrast, hiding them will also have an impact. Often, dysfunctional behaviors like suicidal tendencies, substance use disorders, interpersonal conflicts, emotional suppression, overeating and other problematic concerns are caused by intolerably painful emotions. Recent findings from the University of Bergen in Norway indicate that those with emotional regulation skills can prevent relapse, possess emotional clarity and awareness, and move toward an increased sense of tolerance for suffering and pain.  

With the current opioid epidemic, statistical significance, as well as ongoing dialogue with current events in our nation, necessitate a better, more accessible and authentic understanding of emotional regulation. The American Psychological Association is also responding to the current opioid epidemic that has started to see an increase of children and adolescents entering the foster system due to parents acquiring a substance use and misuse. Emotional dysregulation can be one of these causal factors for influencing negative outcomes of substance use as well as factors related to major depression. There has been a higher percentage, more than one third of the American population, now resorting to prescription drugs for the cause of alleviating distress and escaping daily stressors.

The Explosion of Emotional Regulation Resources

The growing and diverse field of emotional regulation continues to flourish with self-help books, articles, conferences and special journal issues populating the global scene. Just as a reference, in the early 1990s, only a few citations each year in journals reflected emotional regulation. By 2007, citations grew to around 3,000. By 2012, a mere five years later, this number had multiplied to around 8,000 citations. Field experts, community leaders, mental health practitioners, parents and families annually grow in facilitating dialogue around this human condition of being governed by our emotions, and also being rulers over them. This field of emotional regulation is one of the fastest growing chutes for publications and ongoing investigations within the soil of modern psychology.

Emotional regulation goals, strategies, and outcomes are part of this ongoing dialogue; new discoveries and developments are associated with emotional learning, decision-making and life experience. Emotional intelligence remains the umbrella and emotional regulation as a core necessity of our internal makeup. Those experiences that we internalize and categorize as emotions powerfully impact the manner that we perceive and engage with the world. Truly, emotions can guide actions, modify our perception of reality, and create tension between what we perceive and the environment that we find ourselves within.

Defining and Treating Emotional Regulation

Clinical researchers and practitioners alike within the medical community collectively agree that emotional regulation is the ability to control or influence which emotions to have, when to have them and how to experience and express them. The professional community now understands that being able to regulate emotions as well as consciously control them can be simultaneously automatic and effort-based. In studies that have involved longitudinal data and reflections with middle, high school and college-age students, results have demonstrated that emotional regulation is a key indicator and cornerstone skill set for academic and life-long success.

Emotional regulation skill sets are grouped together with understanding and naming emotions, developing change in unwanted emotions, reducing vulnerabilities to the emotional mind and self-managing extreme emotional sensitivity and intensity. In environments where an individual experiences intolerance or strong disapproval for the lack of emotional management, teaching emotional regulation skill sets can be very difficult. The optimal context for emotional regulation skill sets to be taught and grown are in a place where there is emotional validation.

6 Ways to Improve Emotional Regulation in Your Own Life

Similar to how our own fingerprints identify us in unique ways, the emotional regulation of an individual has a unique and dynamic fingerprint. Here are several strategies for choosing to develop emotional regulation within your family, work space, and community:

  • Realize a vision for grit. Angela Duckworth’s reflections and studies have created a stirring new measurement within international educational communities and business platforms. Dynamically linked to emotional regulation, many pundits have deemed that the concept of “grit”—a combination of passion and perseverance—will create a lasting legacy and sincere impact on an individual’s personal life for success outcomes. By choosing to develop grit and a growth-oriented mindset in relationships, you can experience greater health and wholeness.
  • Choose to validate the other individual. Emotional pain can enter into a place of healing when the individual experiences value and meaning for their emotions, and validation can be an empowering motivation for pursuing healing. Emotional invalidation can disrupt the health of a relationship and can create more emotional distance. You can read more extensively about validation here.
  • Three components to basic emotions are arousal, motivation and feelings. Arousal is seen as the neural energy that empowers the emotion. Motivation is recognized as what encourages the behavior after experiencing an emotion, and typically is seen in the categories of approach, avoid or attack. Feelings are our subjective experiences of the emotions and what the emotions “feel like” as part of our emotional terrain. Emotions are seen to be aroused in 90-minute cycles throughout the day, and we are more likely to experience intense emotional responses at peak arousal times. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to cool down after an intense emotional response.
  • The limbic system, at the structural level within the brain, is seen as developed and formed by age 3. Many within the medical community call this the Toddler Brain, and it is seen as responsible for emotional expression and management. Our emotional responses change as we learn to re-frame and develop thought patterns that have newly constructed meaning about the circumstance, event or relationship that created the emotional response originally. Re-framing can be a powerful and transformative pathway toward better emotional regulation and unleash pain from past emotional suffering.
  • Express yourself in a healthy way! Suppressing your emotions has been proven to shut down communication within relationships. It takes around 100 milliseconds to emotionally react and the brain about 600 milliseconds to think about the emotional response. Shutting down and suppressing the emotional response is not an effective strategy for emotional health. Labeling your emotion can lead you to feel more grounded and in control. Choose to name your emotional response and allow time for the individuals in your shared space to respond and give you empathy instead. Emotional granularity, the ability to specify emotions through enriching your emotions vocabulary, has enormous implications for achieving emotional regulation.
  • Watch Lisa Feldman Barrett address the new discoveries about emotional regulation. Regular exercise, quality cycles of sleep and healthy eating are not just repetitive therapeutic counsel, but invaluable for our emotional regulation and what many call being in a healthy state of our body budget. The body budget is when memories, perceptions, thoughts and emotions collide with our body’s internal state. Exercise, sleep and wholesome eating are needed for maintaining a healthy body budget and overall well-being.

Ultimately, whether we have negative or positive emotional experiences, emotional regulation leads to healthier and longer lives filled with precision in how we tend to experience the world around us and within us more enjoyably.

Recommended Resources:

  • How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
  • Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
  • Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One and Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress both by Steven Stosny
  • Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships by Curt Thompson