Emotional regulation is the ability to control our emotions just like we control so many other parts of us – like our hands and legs. All of us have this ability to some extent. It goes up and down during various phases of life. It goes down during the first 6 years of our adolescence, for example, when the emotional regions of our brain start becoming stronger while its analytical regions remain the same as before. Or during certain phases of the menstrual cycle for women, as another example. It goes up during other phases – like the second 6 years of our adolescence when our analytical regions catch up to our emotional regions.
Many mental health conditions, in one way or another, are the result of a weakened, dysregulated or hijacked emotional regulation. A lot of new-age mental well-being practices, whether from psychology or spirituality, focus on strengthening emotional regulation. I say all this only to emphasize how valuable this single ability is for our mental wellbeing. Naturally, it plays a huge role in how good a partner we can be in all our relationships with the people in our lives.
How can we improve it? This is where it gets tricky. Normally, neither emotions nor emotional regulation is under our conscious control. This is what makes it different from all the other skills I’ve mentioned so far. In people with healthy emotional regulation, their mind somehow automatically seems to do what needs to be done to regulate an excess of any emotions – positive or negative, especially negative. Unfortunately, this automatic system isn’t designed by evolution to care about our wellbeing. It is designed to increase our chances of survival and propagation. Uncontrolled emotions are more likely to result in uninhibited sex, which would have produced a lot of babies in the condom-less world that shaped our genes through natural selection. Bad for you, but good for your DNA to spread itself. How do we become better at something our own genes don’t want us to improve in?
There are many semi-effective solutions, but humanity is yet to master this skill beyond rudimentary levels. The best I can do is to share these solutions and invite you to explore new ways yourself, on behalf of humanity.
- Build a strong emotional support system: Emotion is a global process within the brain – it affects your entire brain as opposed to limited centres. That’s why your brain literally works differently when you’re emotional when compared with the way it usually works. Problems that’d be so easy to solve when we aren’t emotional suddenly seem incredibly confusing when we’re emotional. This is also why we’re often much better at advising our friends on emotional matters than dealing with the same situations in our own life. One simple way to address this problem is by seeking help from other people who might be able to think about our problems without the baggage of our emotions. They’re useful not because they’re better than you at solving emotional problems, but only because they’re not you; they’re not the one having the problem.
- Practise gaining control over simpler unconscious processes: Another distinctive feature of our emotions is that they influence many of our involuntary processes – heartbeat, breathing, perspiration, even digestion and circulation. This influence seems to be a two-way process. If for any reason, these bodily processes were to be counter-influenced, then the emotions that caused them to change also get countered. This is how many methods from yoga, breath-work and meditation work. Stress increases your breathing rate? Consciously lower it and hope that it’ll also result in reduced stress. Anxiety increases your likelihood of thinking of bad possibilities? Consciously think of happy moments in your life and hope that they’ll also reduce your anxiety. Nervousness makes your attention turn inward? Consciously force it to pay attention to the outside world by listing down colours, sounds and smells in your surrounding… and so on. It seems to work in many cases, but not always.
- Reframe your triggers in a non-emotional way: This technique, often called reappraisal, involves reframing the thought or experience that’s triggering our emotions instead of dealing with the emotions themselves. Because of my passion for science, my favourite way of reappraisal is reinterpreting personal experiences as scientific experiments. For example, when I’m feeling stressed, I start thinking about the exact electrical and chemical processes that might be happening in my brain to cause my stress or as a result of my stress. The exact same technique works to reappraise any other emotion as well. Some people try to reframe their trigger in an optimistic way – either by focusing on any benefits it may bring, however small or by thinking about how it’s gonna make them stronger or better in the long run. Other people try to ask themselves – “what would you tell your friend if they were going through the same problem?” as a way of reinterpreting the situation in a less emotional way. There are several other techniques that have become popular in recent years under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), etc. You’ll find them easily on google.
- Change your emotional pathways when you’re not emotional: This approach focuses on strengthening our positive emotions by doing things when we’re not in any kind of emotional crisis. i.e. when our brain is working normally. The logic is – because we can’t consciously control what our brain chooses to do when we’re emotional, let us fill our brain with positive options when we’re not emotional so that the likelihood of our brain choosing a negative option goes down even when it’s drowned in emotions. Gratitude journaling, meditations that focus on reliving happy memories or creating happy places – all of these are based on this logic.