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What is Emotional Regulation? A Definition

“Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.”

(Gross, 1998, p. 275).

The definition of emotional regulation encompasses both positive and negative feelings, along with how we can strengthen them, use them, and control them.

Emotional regulation involves three components:

  • Initiating actions triggered by emotions.
  • Inhibiting actions triggered by emotions.
  • Modulating responses triggered by emotions.

Ideally, the third component is the best way to make the most of the regulatory processes.

Every day, we face hundreds of emotion-provoking stimuli, and most of them require some action or response from our end. It is only natural for the mind to get hooked into some negative contemplation or unmindfully ignore emotions after getting bombarded with so many stimuli every day (Davidson, 1998).

Emotional regulation acts as a modifier; it helps us filter the most important pieces of information and motivates us to attend to it in a way that wouldn’t evoke stress or fear.

Studies on emotional regulation indicate that there is a significant positive correlation between emotion regulation and depression management. People with lower levels of anxiety show higher emotional control and social-emotional intelligence.

Research indicates that emotions are adaptive responses that have a deep-rooted basis in evolutionary biology (Levenson, 1999). The way we feel and interpret them affects how we think, how we decide, and how we coordinate our actions in day-to-day lives.

For example, a person who has poor emotion regulation strategies is more likely to fall prey to mood polarities; his actions and behavioral patterns would always be at the mercy of his emotions.

Quite the contrary, a well-regulated person, will have a better balance and judgment of his feelings and actions. Emotional regulation allows us to carefully judge which affective outcomes to embrace and which ones to avoid (Wegner, Erber, & Zanakos, 1993).

When we confront a provoking stimulus, the natural reaction of the brain is to activate the amygdala, a brain site that regulates the fight-or-flight responses (Lee, 2018; Van der Kolk, 1994). Emotional regulation processes allow us to buy time before we act on the fight or flight triggers.

Kris Lee, a Professor and the author of the book Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking–Learn What It Takes to be More Agile, Mindful, and Connected in Today’s World says that with emotional regulation, we can allow the initial upsurge of emotions to settle down and zoom out of the situation before reacting to it.

The increased time gap between stimulus and response restores the mental faculties that involve rational thinking and reasoning. As a result, we can save ourselves from sudden emotional breakdowns or burnout.

6 Most Useful Emotional Regulation Skills for Adults

Self-regulation is all about pausing between feeling and reactions – it encourages us to slow down for a bit and act after objectively evaluating a situation. For example, a student who yells at others and hits his friends for petty reasons surely has less emotional control than a child who, before hitting or yelling, tells the teacher about his problems.

Another huge aspect of emotional regulation is value engagement. When we react impulsively without paying much attention to what is going on inside, we might often deviate from our core values and act in a way that is opposite to them. With proper regulation and self-control, we gain the power to stay calm under pressure and prevent ourselves from acting against our core values and ethics.

Here are some skills that can help in cultivating emotional regulation and sustaining it during challenging times in life.

1. Self-awareness

Noticing what we feel and naming it is a great step toward emotional regulation. For example, when you feel bad, ask yourself – Am I feeling sad, hopeless, ashamed, or anxious?

Give yourself some options and explore your feelings. Try to name the specific emotions that you can feel intensely within yourself at that very moment, and write it down if you want. You need not act or judge the cause and effect of your emotions at this stage; all you need is complete awareness of each feeling that is controlling your mind ‘right now.’

2. Mindful awareness

In addition to gaining thought awareness, mindfulness lets us explore and identify all aspects of the external world, including our body. Simple mindful exercises such as breath control or sensory relaxation can calm the storm inside and guide our actions in the right way.

3. Cognitive reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal includes altering the way we think. It is an essential component of psychotherapies like CBT, DBT, and Anger Management, and calls for greater acceptance and flexibility.

Cognitive reappraisal skills may include practices such as thought replacement or situational role reversals, where we try to look into a stressful situation from a whole new perspective.

For example, we can replace thoughts like ‘My boss hates me’, ‘I am no longer needed here’, etc. with alternatives such as, ‘My boss is upset at this moment, I am sure I can make up for this’, or ‘I know I am hard working and honest, let me give it another try’, etc.. By doing so, we gain a broader and better perception of our problems and react to them with more positivity.

4. Adaptability

Emotional dysregulation lowers our adaptability to life changes. We become more prone to distractions and fail our coping mechanisms, which is why we often start resisting changes. A great exercise to build adaptability is objective evaluation.

For example, when you feel bogged down by stressful emotions that you want to avoid, and you might end up destructively reacting to them, take a moment to think what if your best friend was experiencing the same thing? What would you have suggested him to do under these circumstances? Write your answers if you want to and try to think if you are following the same steps for yourself!

5. Self-compassion

Setting aside some time for ourselves every day is a great way to build emotional regulation skills. Reminding ourselves of our talents and virtues, and letting our minds land on a flexible space can immensely change the way we feel and react to our emotions.

Some simple self-compassion hacks involve:

  • Daily positive self-affirmations
  • Relaxation and breath control
  • Compassion meditation
  • Regular self-care
  • Gratitude journaling

6. Emotional support

Psychologists believe that we all have the innate capacity to build a robust emotional repertoire and save our mental energy from getting invested in negativity. We can seek emotional support within ourselves by practicing mindful self-awareness or can seek help outside by engaging in positive communication with others.

It is okay to see a therapist or professional when our inner coping fails; the sole focus is to create a positive emotional shield that can channelize our emotions to bring out the best in us.

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