SEL for Students: 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 way 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 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.
A teacher with a diverse group of students notices that not all of her students are enjoying a game from a social-emotional learning curriculum that asks students to outwardly express an emotion. Some look very uncomfortable and a couple are unable to express the emotion at all.
Later, the teacher reads about a study that found Asian-Americans’ blood pressure increases when asked to express emotions. She also learns that some cultures discourage outward emotional expression. Both of these findings encourage the teacher to have open discussions with students and their families about expressing and navigating emotions, but she is careful to not stereotype her students based on the research.
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 6th grader who was anxious about starting middle school remembered learning from her 5th grade teacher that when she was feeling scared, she could change how she felt by thinking differently about the situation. So, instead of dreading her new school, this student decided to look at it as an adventure—one that might bring her new friends, wonderful teachers, 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.
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.
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 student whose teacher has been teaching the class how to recognize and label their emotions writes in her journal that she feels sad and embarrassed that she received a low grade on a recent test. Feeling better, she talks to her teacher about the questions she got wrong on the test.
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.” Here is an example:
A student whose dream it is to go to college faces opposition from her family who doesn’t believe girls need higher education. She experiences many emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, defiance, and despair. Because the emotions are so intense and she lacks emotion regulation skills, she starts to lose sleep and withdraw from others. Ruminating on her situation, she begins to sink into depression and loses all hope that her dream will be fulfilled.
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.