What is emotional regulation and how can we soothe our intense emotions.
In the previous blog article of this two part delve into emotions we focused on understanding and accepting our emotions due to the large part they play in our lives. In this blog article we will look into a concept known as emotional regulation in order to increase our tools for dealing with difficult emotions. Emotional regulation is the name describing a set of skills for managing strong emotional responses and is particularly helpful to use when we feel in a state of crisis.
Why is it helpful to track and understand our emotions?
We have an array of basic and more complex emotions (see emotion wheel below) and on a frequent basis our mood states are constantly changing and fluctuating. This is for a number of reasons including the internal and external triggers and demands we are responding to. Internal triggers can be in the form of physical illness and hormonal changes whereas external triggers may include situations such as our car being blocked in, someone being rude to us or being late for an event. Triggers that affect our emotions can be both negative and positive. For example someone giving us a compliment or a memory of a pleasant holiday may induce feelings of happiness within us.
We can spot changes in our mood states by paying attention to a number of signs including physical symptoms, thinking patterns and behavioural reactions. For example if I am feeling frightened I may be experiencing faster heart rate and my breathing may be quicker. These are physical signs of fear. I may have thoughts about danger and threat and behaviourally I may avoid or withdraw from whatever is causing me fear. Cognitive behavioural therapy can help us understand this example (see diagram below) and our own vicious cycles which demonstrates that there is an interconnected relationship between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.
Emotional regulation is a term from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and puts forth skills to help us change our emotions or situations. The diagram below depicts an emotional regulation tool called the window of tolerance. If we imagine our emotions as weather and characteristics of the ocean surrounding a boat out at sea, when we are feeling balanced, neutral or calm then our boat may be gliding along on relatively calm weather and water conditions. This is known as the zone of optimal arousal whereby we can deal with the ups and downs of life relatively well and calmly. We are able to think rationally and behave in helpful ways.
When we are feeling high energy emotional states such as anxiety, anger or panic then our boat may be crashing frantically against the wind and rough ocean waves. Our boat may be harder to steer, going off course and crashing into things. This is the fight/flight reaction in the zone of hyperarousal. In this zone we often feel overwhelmed. Our thoughts become more irrational and we may react to things impulsively.
And when we are feeling the low energy emotional states such as sadness and depression in the hypoarousal zone then our boat may feel like it is being pulled under and sinking beneath the dark water of an underlying current. In this zone we may feel lack of motivation, lethargy and we can be very hard on ourselves with self-critical thoughts. We may find it hard to think positively or optimistically about much. We may withdraw from situations or people which may help.
The window of tolerance is a helpful tool to use to understand what zone of arousal we are in and to help bring us back into the optimal zone of arousal, which is where we can deal with life stressors without feeling overwhelmed. This is like taking charge of the boat when the weather and the ocean’s waters (our emotions) begin to challenge us. When we pay attention to where we are we can choose to take effective action if we notice that we are starting to move out of the zone of optimal arousal up into hyperarousal or down into hypoarousal. If we pay enough attention to where we are on the window of tolerance we can learn how activities and behaviours affect us emotionally and learn what works best for us. We can begin to understand our triggers better meaning we can respond quickly and effectively.
The steps helpful in emotional regulation
Step 1: Journaling
As previously mentioned the first step is to understand your emotional states and the corresponding responses better. A helpful way to begin to increase your awareness is to journal when you experience distressing emotions paying particular attention to how you feel physically within your body, as well as the thoughts you have and behavioural reactions you engage in. It may be helpful to check out this journal example from therapistaid.com
Step 2: Coping strategies
The next step is to experiment with a number of healthy and helpful coping strategies to discover which ones work best for you. When considering helpful coping activities it can be helpful to consider them in the following categories.
Soothe the senses
Listen to favourite music (calm or uplifting)
Smell your favourite scent
Light a candle and watch it flicker
Have a bath
Listen to nature
Meditate, do yoga,
Go for a mindful walk
Watch your favourite programme
Read a novel
Walk or sit on the beach or park
Visit the hairdresser
Do a crossword or sudoku
Put on a facemask/look after your skin
Take up new hobby
Learn another language
Paint, draw, sculpt
Start a diary or journal
Write a short story
Home and garden
Mow the lawn
Clean the car
Bath the dog
Make contact with others
Phone a friend
Join a group
Write a letter
Meet someone for coffee
Play sport/games with others
Join a leisure centre or health suite
Go for a walk or jog
Go for a cycle
Visit a place of interest
Go to a park or beach
Have a cuppa in your garden
Go for a drive
Express yourself physically
Scream, shout, sing loudly
Rip something up
Punch or kick a pillow
Positive self- talk
"I can get through this"
"This will pass"
"I don’t need to do this, It will only make it worse afterwards"
"I can cope for another hour – I can take one hour at a time"
"Breathe – you can do this"
"One moment at a time"
Step 3: Experiment with what works best for you
It is important to find out what activities works best for you to help regulate your emotions. A simple observation experiment can help with this. Simply keep a journal of times when you have felt distressing emotions and note the impact and outcome of each coping strategy you have used to find out which are most effective for you. See below for an example of a tool, which can aid in this process.
You can download a copy of this worksheet for your own use below.
Step 4: Pop helpful strategies into a coping toolkit
For the final step we can take all this information we have discovered from our monitoring to help create a pre-arranged coping toolkit which can be helpful for when we experience the very strong emotional states and feel overcome by them. If we have a coping toolkit written down somewhere that we can quickly access or even better if we have something tangible that we can look at, touch and quickly access then this can have a beneficial impact on regulating our emotions. I have a coping toolkit set up in my office to help bring these concepts to life for my clients. In my coping toolkit I have things that I find help bring me from intense emotional states to the zone of optimal arousal such as my favourite scented hand cream, a body spritz to gain a cooling effect when I need it, a soft textured blanket, a written note of my favourite and most effective songs and a meaningful photograph. You can make your toolkit come to life even with things that are not tangible so for example if you have found a walk near the woods has a good impact on your emotional wellbeing then maybe a picture or photograph of this particular place would be helpful to place in your coping toolkit.
Emotional Regulation during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Many activities normally available to us to aid emotional regulation are now limited due to the lockdown restrictions. Rather than giving up hope of engaging in the activities that are now limited to us it can be helpful to be creative by aligning our activities to our values. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) the term values refers to underlying reasons why certain activities give our lives meaning and help give us a sense of purpose and direction even in the face of difficult or painful experience. For example medical staff may find this time very challenging and exhausting but their values which may have brought them into this line of work may be helping guide them and cope during suffering. This may include values such as care, commitment, contribution, kindness. We may experience great loss and life stressors at times but if we connect to our deeper values this may help us to stay focused, resilient and give us a direction in life.
To access our values we can ask ourselves what really matters to us deep in our heart. Values should not be confused with goals. They are about who we want to be and what we want our lives to be about. They can help guide our goals but unlike a goal, values cannot be achieved as they are guiding our life on an ongoing basis.
There are four broad areas when considering our values. These are work/education, leisure, relationships and personal growth/health. Values within these areas might include compassion, contribution, fitness, connection, freedom and self-care.
Committed action should be guided by our core values. We can ask ourselves what type of person we want to be in this crisis and what we want to stand for? We can then look for ways to bring these values into each day. For example, we might value kindness and look for ways to bring this into our daily life such as making a cup of tea for our loved one, telling our loved on one thing we are grateful for or asking our neighbour how they are doing over the fence. In the previous blog I made special mention to compassion, which is a value. Compassion, kindness and caring are especially important values during this Coronavirus. We can consider how we can treat others and ourselves in a kind and caring way. What will it be about our response during this crisis that we can look back and feel proud of in years to come?
In terms of activities that we can no longer do as normal, we can ask ourselves what it was about that activity that we valued. An example to illustrate this may be if we regularly enjoying swimming. What is it we value about that activity? - If it was fitness we can replace this with exercise in another form such as online-guided exercise videos. If it was connection with others we valued then we can consider options such as regular video calls with loved ones or friends. In this way our values can help bring meaning and purpose in times of suffering and difficulty.
I hope this blog article will be of help during the current pandemic and beyond. If you are currently struggling and feel it would be helpful to talk to a trained professional then you can get in touch on our website.