You're in the right place if you're done with fighting against your emotions and thus making your life more difficult than it needs to be.
In the first post in this series, we discussed why you've been struggling to deal with your emotions. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend going back and doing so now!
We established that it's not your fault that your emotions have been taking over your life. However, as Chris Irons explains in his book - The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions - it is your responsibility to develop your skills to help you with regulating your emotions.
I have been reading up on emotional regulation skills and developing my own skills in this area for years now. In this post, I will summarise the key areas to focus on and techniques that you can try.
I have provided a reference list at the end so you can find the work that influenced this post and read them for a deeper understanding of the topic.
Developing awareness and recognising your emotions
The first step in any type of change is becoming aware of what's going on and where you would like things to change. With emotional regulation, the focus is on what's happening in your mind and body, where your attention is and what behaviours you're engaging in as a result.
With this step, I encourage you to be curious and try to avoid attaching any judgement to what is going on for you.
Drop into your body and become more present. In his book Permission to Feel, Marc Brackett talks about how most people can get a visceral sense of how they are. At this moment in time, are you up or down, pleasant or unpleasant, energized or drained?
Start to take note of what's going on in your body. You might find it helpful to write things down or simply close your eyes and reflect. Remember, there's no right or wrong.
You may also wish to reflect on what has led up to the way you're feeling, however we'll go into this in more depth later.
Labelling and naming your emotions
While in the last step we were collating a general sense of how we are feeling, now we're going to get more specific. It has been shown through research (Lieberman et al, 2007), that by naming an emotion (and nothing else), the effect of emotions can be reduced.
Labelling your emotions can be a fine art. It takes time and practice to distinguish between different feelings - for example, anxiety, fear, worry, overwhelm and stress. They all have similar characteristics but often require a different response.
In addition, most of us simply don't have the vocabulary to effectively name our feelings. An emotion wheel can help with this, you can see one in the post below.
Again it can be helpful to take notes to remind yourself of how you tend to experience different emotions. It's also worth noting that you can experience multiple emotions at once - being curious and investigating can help you to build up a picture of what's going on.
Another helpful practice is to remind yourself of a past experience and labelling the feelings that were going on at that time. If it's too much to label your emotions in the present, this technique is a great alternative.
Remember that it's not just about the unpleasant emotions - it's also helpful to be able to distinguish between joy, excitement, contentment and fulfilment.
Understanding your emotions and what influences them
The skill of understanding your emotions helps you to identify a more detailed picture of what's going on for you. Marc Brackett highlights that this is the stage where we ask ourselves - why?
This part requires looking into our past and examining what we have reacted to and what part of the situation caused the emotion we felt. This can help us to understand things that may trigger us in the future and we can plan how we want to deal with those triggers.
It can be helpful to think about what may have caused an emotion, or if you're unsure what events happened leading up to the current feeling.
Journaling is such a helpful tool to aid in understanding your emotions. Sometimes just thinking about it may not provide answers. Putting pen to paper is a way to organise
your thoughts and question yourself to get to a deeper level of understanding.
Again this is a skill that is developed over time, so don't feel too disheartened if you're struggling with this. You may also have to wait until the initial emotion has passed to begin this step. If it's too distressing, come back to it at a later date.
Expressing your emotions
This step is almost a culmination of the work you've done up to this point. In order to be able to express your emotions, you've recognised, labelled and understood them.
You don't need to be 100% clear on everything and expression can certainly help with understanding your emotions. It can be helpful for the person you're expressing yourself to if you have a basic understanding of what's going on for you.
Another important factor to consider is whether you feel safe to share your experience and with whom that might be. Marc Brackett talks about how expression is often regarded as the scariest stage of emotional management.
This might mean that you want to tackle some commonly held beliefs before you express your emotions. It isn't weak to talk about your feelings - it's actually a very healthy coping strategy.
While it might feel scary at first, expressing how you feel can help things to feel lighter. It also gives the other person you're talking to permission to open up about their feelings.
One important thing to note is that validation is key. Validating your own emotions and the emotions of others means that we feel heard and supported, and is often the key to a helpful exchange.
If expressing your emotions to someone else feels too big at the moment, writing offers a great alternative. Pennebaker (1997) found that writing about traumatic events while distressing at the time, provided relief and even physical health improvements in the long run.
The key with expressing your emotions is that you're no longer suppressing them which, as we saw in the first post in this series, makes them more difficult to manage.
Dealing with and regulating your emotions
This is the final step and the one that I think most people will be disappointed that it isn't just the whole post! I hear you, you want to just be able to deal with that tricky feeling and move on.
However, emotions just don't work like that. They are messengers that are here to be understood and expressed. You can skip to this step if you like, but I guarantee you that the relief you gain will be short-lived.
Your emotions tell you a lot about who you are, what tends to trigger you, what means a lot to you and how you tend to react. While confronting them can be painful at times, you will be much better equipped to handle them in the future.
Now there are many, many ways you can regulate your emotions. I'm going to cover the broad themes in this post. I encourage you to try them out for yourself, see which ones work best for you and do some further reading to build up your toolkit.
Sitting with and tolerating emotions
There is so much power in allowing a feeling to simply be there. Without pushing it away, without trying to change it. Just to simply notice it and sit alongside it. This is a skill that will require practice and patience. It's totally normal if you resist this at first.
Many of my clients are concerned that allowing their feelings to be present, means that they will overwhelm them. The majority of the time this is untrue. In actuality, once you sit down to practice, it's likely the emotions will pass quicker than you anticipated.
Remember that you are in control and you're safe. You can stop at any time. Use your breath or the contact of your body on the chair/floor as a way to anchor yourself back in the present moment as needed.
This is a key skill that arguably is important in all of the stages of emotional regulation. Being able to tune into the present moment can help us to understand where our attention is when experiencing a certain emotion as well as helping us to be in the moment when we're tolerating an emotion.
You may be more used to being on automatic pilot and therefore being mindful might take a bit more practice. There are so many apps that can help you with this. My favourite is Insight Timer and is the one I use in my emotional regulation and general self-care practices. Chris Irons also shares many mindfulness exercises throughout his book specifically aimed at supporting you to manage your emotions.
Self-compassion and validation
It's helpful to recognise what you say to yourself when you're struggling. My guess is that it's not very positive. Being more compassionate towards yourself involves strength, courage, a commitment to caring and wisdom. If this feels alien to you, start talking to yourself as you would a friend or loved one.
Self-compassion can also be shown through self-soothing behaviours. You may not feel able to be kind to yourself through your words, but you can do it through your actions instead.
Taking time out and relaxation
This one works in two situations - when you're reacting in the moment and at any time. Most people react quickly to situations or triggers, often when they're in the midst of an intense emotion. This can lead to feelings of guilt and regret if the consequences are negative or not what you would like to happen.
Taking yourself out of a situation or counting to 5 in your mind can be all you need to choose how you respond. It's a way to ground yourself and think through what's happened. You can also respond much later if you need more time to think through your response.
Relaxation helps to deal with the physiological effects that accompany most emotions. Breathwork, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga are some of the strategies that can help you to relax and decompress. Here's a simple 3-minute breathing exercise to get you started.
If you're unsure about which technique to use, ask yourself:
"What do I need right now?"
We have gone through so many tools, tips, exercises and practices in this article. I'd love you to commit to trying one per week until you find the right fit for you. As I've said throughout this post, emotional regulation really is a skill and it's something that I'm always learning more about.
Don't stress about getting it right or trying everything right away. Slow and consistent is what works best. If you want to dive deeper into this work, I really recommend the references I've used for this series.
In the final post, we will look at why it's not always necessary to feel your feelings. Yes that sounds like a contradiction of everything I said in this post, but trust me - it will all make sense!
This blog post series has been informed by the following references:
Aldoa, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 217-237.
Brackett, M., (2019). Permission to Feel: Unlock the power of emotions to help yourself and your children thrive. Hachette; UK.
Hanson, R. (2018). Resilient: 12 tools for transforming everyday experiences into lasting happiness. Random House; UK.
Irons, C (2019). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions using compassion focused therapy. Robinson; UK.
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H. and Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words. Psychological science, 18(5), 421-428.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological science, 8(3),162-166.