Emotion regulation is the ability to respond to challenging circumstances and to control one’s emotional state. It is our capacity to manage and adjust emotions in a given circumstance.
What Is Emotion Regulation?
Emotion regulation is an automated or controlled process through which individuals experience and express their feelings in a given circumstance. A 2020 study 1 defined this phenomenon as “attempts to influence emotions in ourselves or others”. Emotion regulation is a complex process. It involves initiating, inhibiting, or controlling one’s emotional state or behavior in a particular situation. It is the ability to enhance or reduce emotions as and when required, which is a significant function of human life. As humans, we are expected to manage our emotions in a socially acceptable manner. When we fail to regulate our emotions, we often say or do things that we regret. For instance, if an individual is upset in the middle of a client meeting, they may distract themselves from whatever was bothering them by thinking about something else.
Humans possess the ability to adjust and regulate their emotions. Lack of appropriate emotion regulation may be a sign of mental illness such as borderline personality disorder or depression. The consequences of poor emotion regulation are dire. Anger, anxiety, or fear can negatively impact relationships or cause unnecessary suffering.
A 2010 study 2 found a positive correlation between emotion regulation and depression management. People with greater emotion regulation and social-emotional intelligence showed lower levels of anxiety and stress. Another 2017 study 3 suggested that most people regulate their emotions daily, and more than half of the time, they do so by modifying the expression of emotions in their face, voice, and posture. A 2010 report 4 pointed out that the ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status.
Components Of Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation has three main components. These components are triggered by emotions and include the following:
1. Initiating And Inhibiting Actions
Every day we encounter several emotion-provoking situations that require action and emotion regulation from our end. It is natural to get hooked on negative emotions that may hinder our actions. We may also completely ignore how we feel when we get bombarded with too many emotions. Initiating and inhibiting actions are usually interlinked with each other. We need to inhibit distracting information in order to drive our attention, inhibit irrelevant cues in order to retrieve particular information, and inhibit habitual responses in order to make adaptive choices. A 2007 study 5 found that depressed individuals have difficulty disengaging attention from emotionally negative material, inhibiting representations of negative material in working memory, and resisting their propensity to selectively retrieve negative memories from long-term storage.
2. Modulating Responses
Our emotion regulator acts as a modifier and helps us to process the important pieces of information. This motivates us to attend to our emotions thoughtfully to avoid stress or fear. Modulating responses help us to regulate our emotions wisely that ultimately helps in lower levels of anxiety and stress. Our adapted responses are rooted in how we feel and interpret things. It also depends on how we decide and how we coordinate our actions daily.
Process Model Of Emotion Regulation
The process model is the prevalent generic theory of emotion regulation. This theory suggests that our emotions follow a sequence. The sequence can be laid out as follows:
Emotion arises out of a particular situation. It may be an external or internal situation. For instance, emotions can be triggered when a friend makes a sarcastic remark (external) or when you think about certain situations that are positive or negative (internal). In these cases, we can choose to avoid people or situations that hurt us. We can also choose to engage in positive situations that make us feel better.
Emotion is triggered when this situation catches your attention. For instance, it may catch your attention if your friend suddenly isn’t talking to you as much as they used to. In such circumstances, we can distract ourselves by thinking about something else. This is when one should exercise emotion regulation.
In this case, emotions are triggered when you elevate the situation. In the previous example, you may lure yourself to believe that the person isn’t talking because they don’t want to be your friend anymore. In order to regulate our emotions, we can change the way we think about the situation. When you are worried about why your friend no longer wants to continue the friendship, remind yourself not to jump to conclusions. They may be going through some personal issues and they may not be in the mood to talk.
The last sequence entails how you respond to the situation. A response can be physical or emotional. If you are upset or angry, your face may turn red. This is when you respond to the situation that may ultimately change the circumstances or start a new sequence. For instance, when you ask this friend why they weren’t talking to you, they may apologize or say that they are having a bad day. In such cases, emotion regulation involves changing how we respond to the situation. Instead of lashing out or being aggressive, you can resort to mindful exercises such as breathing exercises or yoga. This will allow you to keep your emotions at bay and control your response.
Emotion Regulation Skills
Some skills are essential for regulating emotions. This will ultimately help you to deal with the challenges that life throws at you.
1. Mindful Awareness
A great deal of emotion regulation can be achieved by being mindfully aware of your being. Some of the mindful exercises can include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or exercising. These exercises can help calm your vices and guide your actions towards the right path. A 2017 study suggested that mindfulness is effective in a wide range of psychological conditions characterized by emotional dysregulation.
2. Cognitive Reappraisal
This involves altering the way we think. Cognitive Reappraisal is an essential element of psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and anger management. It demands greater acceptance and flexibility. These skills include practices such as thought replacement or situational role reversals that involve looking at a stressful situation from an entirely different perspective. A 1985 study 6 suggested that emotions are elicited when a person evaluates an event or situation as important for their well-being and central concerns. Furthermore, they hold that the quality and intensity of the elicited emotion will not depend upon the situation itself, but upon the person’s subjective evaluation of the situation in terms of a set of appraisal dimensions.
For instance, you can replace thoughts like “my boss dislikes me” or “I’m not appreciated here” with alternatives such as “he is upset at the moment but I’m sure I can make up for this” or “I know I am hardworking so let me try again”. By practicing this, it is possible to broaden your perspective and react to problems with more positivity.
3. Self Compassion
Self-compassion is an important aspect of emotion regulation. Setting time aside to evaluate your emotional well-being is an excellent way to build your emotion regulation skills. Research suggests self-compassion can improve mental health by promoting emotion regulation. Some of the self-compassion techniques that can be adopted are as follows:
- Practicing daily positive affirmations
- Relaxation and deep breathing
- Compassion meditation
- Gratitude journaling
When we experience emotional dysregulation, it usually lowers our adaptability to different life changes. Emotion regulation requires us to adapt to different life changes and modulate our behavior accordingly. We are more prone to distractions due to low adaptability. This is why we often start resisting changes. Studies 7 suggest that adaptability had positive effects on the emotional well-being of the individual. A great way to develop adaptability is objective evaluation. For instance, have you ever thought when you feel drowned by stressful situations you want to avoid, you often react destructively? Would you suggest your best friend react the same way? What would you do otherwise? The things you suggest to your best friend are the way you would adapt to stressful situations.
5. Self Awareness
Being aware of your emotions is an excellent way to regulate them. Name the specific emotion you are feeling at that very moment. Explore all the emotions and assign the appropriate name to what you are feeling. It is not essential to judge the consequences of your emotion. Just being aware of what exactly you are feeling is all you need to control your mind. For instance, if you are feeling down ask yourself whether you are feeling sad, hopeless, anxious, or afraid. This will allow you to better understand your emotions. A 2016 study 8 pointed out that self-awareness is usually associated with positive psychological well-being.
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Influence Of Emotion Regulation
Humans are continually exposed to a wide range of emotional stimuli. Unchecked emotional reactions can hinder a person’s ability to regulate emotions. Emotions are often portrayed as irresistible forces that influence our behavior. Thus everyone should engage in some form of emotion regulation in order to respond in a socially acceptable manner.
Emotion Regulation At A Glance
- Emotion regulation is an automated or controlled process through which individuals experience and express their feelings in a given circumstance.
- Lack of appropriate emotion regulation may be a sign of mental illness such as borderline personality disorder or depression.
- Humans are continually exposed to a wide range of emotional stimuli.
- Humans possess the ability to adjust and regulate their emotions.
- Our emotion regulator acts as a modifier and helps us to process the important pieces of information.
- McRae K, Gross JJ. Emotion regulation. Emotion. 2020 Feb;20(1):1-9. doi: 10.1037/emo0000703. PMID: 31961170.
- Joormann, J., & Gotlib, I. H. (2010). Emotion regulation in depression: relation to cognitive inhibition. Cognition & emotion, 24(2), 281–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930903407948
- English, T., Lee, I. A., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Emotion regulation strategy selection in daily life: The role of social context and goals. Motivation and emotion, 41(2), 230–242. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9597-z
- Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021156
- Dillon, D. G., & Pizzagalli, D. A. (2007). Inhibition of Action, Thought, and Emotion: A Selective Neurobiological Review. Applied & preventive psychology : journal of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, 12(3), 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appsy.2007.09.004
- Folkman S, Lazarus RS. If it changes it must be a process: study of emotion and coping during three stages of a college examination. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1985 Jan;48(1):150-70. doi: 10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.199. PMID: 2980281.
- Volkaert, B., Wante, L., Van Beveren, ML. et al. Training Adaptive Emotion Regulation Skills in Early Adolescents: The Effects of Distraction, Acceptance, Cognitive Reappraisal, and Problem Solving. Cogn Ther Res 44, 678–696 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-019-10073-4
- Sutton A. (2016). Measuring the Effects of Self-Awareness: Construction of the Self-Awareness Outcomes Questionnaire. Europe’s journal of psychology, 12(4), 645–658. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178