SEL for Adults: Emotion Regulation
What Is It?
According to emotion researcher James Gross, when we regulate our emotions, we are using processes that impact “which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express them.” These processes are used with both pleasant and unpleasant emotions, and can be done either consciously (biting one’s nails when nervous) or unconsciously (expressing happiness when receiving a so-so gift).
While there are countless ways we regulate our emotions, one of the most common methods is suppression, or shoving them deep down inside in order to limit their expression.
In a staff meeting, a principal is publicly criticized by her teachers for a decision she made. She ignores her body’s signals telling her that she is angry and hurt by their criticism and moves on with the staff meeting. That evening, the principal feels a tight knot in her stomach, but doesn’t realize that it is her body’s way of telling her that she has unpleasant emotions to process from the day. It isn’t until she does a body scan mindfulness practice before bed that she understands the connection between her stomach ache and the staff meeting. She now allows herself to feel the emotions, letting them pass through her, and makes the healthy decision to talk to the teachers tomorrow about their concerns.
In the West, people often suppress their emotions because they don’t want to accept or experience them, which has been found to negatively affect a person’s physical and mental health, in addition to lessening their social support.
In contrast, East Asians are more likely to value emotion suppression because adjusting one’s emotional response to maintain group harmony is of utmost importance. As a result, research suggests that emotion suppression does not have the same harmful effects on people as in the West, however a handful of studies have found otherwise.
Another common method for regulating emotions is reappraisal, or changing how we think about a situation in order to change how we feel. Studies have found that reappraisal is associated with greater life satisfaction and well-being, and less depression.
A new teacher who is anxious about his first year of teaching remembers learning from his mentor that when he feels the terror of facing his students for the first time, he can change how he feels by thinking differently about the situation. So, instead of dreading his new profession, this teacher decides to look at it as an adventure—one that might bring him supportive colleagues, wonderful students, and exciting opportunities.
Other examples of emotion regulation strategies include:
- Checking your beliefs about emotions. Do you believe emotions are good or bad? Do you believe emotions are controllable or uncontrollable? Research suggests that if we believe emotions are good and controllable, then we are more likely to choose to engage in an emotion navigation strategy that also helps us to feel good.
- Writing about your emotions. Research has shown that writing about our emotional experiences can increase our happiness, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve work and school performance. Writing about our experiences makes us active creators of our own life stories and, as a result, we feel more empowered to cope with challenges.
- Using self-distancing or the practice of observing yourself, including your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as if you were an outside observer. In other words, imagine you are a “fly on the wall,” watching your experience, or talk about your experience in the third person.
Studies have found that using self-distancing to understand one’s emotions during a difficult situation can decrease the intensity of the emotional experience, make us less likely to ruminate, and more likely to engage in constructive problem-solving.
An administrator who is shaken up by a meeting with an angry group of parents takes a deep breath to calm himself. He goes into his office, closes the door, and sits down in a comfortable position with his feet on the floor and his hands resting in his lap. Rather than fuming and saying “I’m so angry,” he steps outside of himself as if he’s observing his own behavior. “He feels angry, but also sad that the meeting did not go well. He wonders what, if anything, he can do differently next time. He takes a few deep breaths, noticing his chest rise and fall with each one, and slowly his thoughts and emotions calm down.” After a few minutes of this practice, the administrator is ready to reflect and problem-solve the situation.
- Practicing mindfulness. Research has found that mindfulness helps us differentiate our emotions, giving us more information about how we feel about a situation. This, in turn, makes it easier for us to know what strategy to use to navigate our emotions in a healthy way.
- Labeling emotions. One study found that labeling our emotions can actually decrease the amygdala response—or the part of the brain associated with emotional responses. In other words, “name it to tame it.”
A teacher writes in her journal that she feels embarrassed by how poorly her new lesson went today. Feeling better, she decides to talk to her mentor about how to change the lesson next time.
Why Is It Important?
Perhaps the best way to explain why emotion regulation is important is to describe what may occur when someone becomes emotionally “dysregulated.”
A teacher who works in a school where students have a tremendous amount of trauma in their lives begins to experience some of the same emotions as her students: fear, anger, sadness, defiance, despair. Because she is unaware that she is experiencing “vicarious trauma”—or the emotional contagion effect of being exposed to other people’s trauma—and lacks emotion regulation skills, she starts to lose sleep and withdraw from others. Ruminating on her emotions, she begins to sink into depression and finds it hard to go to school everyday.
While this illustration speaks mainly of difficult emotions, we can also become dysregulated by positive emotions. For example, intense happiness may drive us to attend only to the positive things and take risks of enormous proportions. People in this heightened “happiness overdrive” mode engage in riskier behaviors and tend to disregard threats, including excessive alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use.
According to research, when we use an emotion regulation strategy such as naming the specific emotions we are feeling, we are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking, violence, and self-harm, and better able to handle rejection.