October 7, 2020
Emotional Regulation Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions: [7 Skills to Practice Today]
Written by Rachel Eddins
Do you feel overwhelmed by your emotions?
Build Emotional Regulation Skills & Learn How to Cope with Difficult Emotions
Have you tried to control your emotions with no success? If this sounds like you, you can benefit from learning emotional regulation skills to cope with difficult emotions.
This comprehensive guide to emotion regulation will help you get started with practical skills you can start using today.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Emotion regulation involves moderating the experience of emotions rather than eliminating or controlling emotions.
This includes the ability to alter the intensity or duration of an emotion rather than changing it completely.
When you can moderate the intensity of emotion it can help you control your behavior and reactions and you’ll feel less out of control.
Emotional regulation skills include the ability to identify, understand and accept emotional experiences; control impulsive behaviors when distressed; and flexibly manage emotional experiences as appropriate (i.e., not flying off the handle at work!)
Emotional regulation skills include filtering or discerning between important and unhelpful pieces of information so you can take appropriate action.
Learning emotional self-regulation can also help you meet your needs more effectively. When your needs are met, you feel more fulfilled.
What is Emotion?
Emotions are physical-biological states within our nervous system. Emotions have energy that need to be released through expression or appropriate action.
When we suppress our emotions, our body uses unhealthy habits (ie., holding our breath, constricting muscles) to keep them at bay.
This can result in physical and emotional complications such as problems in our digestive, reproductive or immune systems and/or anxiety or depression.
Before we discuss emotion regulation, it’s worthwhile to explore the function of emotions.
Primarily, emotions serve to give you information.
They tell you something about what is going on with you and the world around you, which helps you know what action to take (to meet your needs, make a decision, etc).
This is why it’s so important to pay attention to our emotions vs. shutting them down.
Example of Responding to an Emotion:
You Feel Anger: This can be triggered when we feel threatened, powerless, or a boundary has been violated.
Your Need: deal with the threat (this can also be internally via changing your thoughts), set a boundary, feel empowered.
Avoiding or Shutting it Down: If you avoid anger instead, you may struggle with powerlessness, negative thinking, resentment, and increased frustration. You may also develop symptoms of depression or anxiety, or physical complaints such as digestive problems, acid reflux, etc..
Making good choices and decisions includes weighing all the available evidence. Further, emotions are important to consider and know, but they aren’t the overriding factor.
There are times, however, when our emotions feel intense and we feel hijacked. We don’t feel we have a choice in how to respond, we just react. This is where the skill of emotion regulation is helpful.
How to Regulate Emotions?
The way we feel and interpret our emotions affect how we think, how we decide, how we react and what actions we take.
- To regulate our emotions, we must first accept them by acknowledging their presence.
- We then need to be aware of our emotional responses and validate their presence.
- Next, learning how to interpret what our emotions are telling us is a key to regulating them.
When we receive information from our emotions we filter it through our other sources of information, determine whether this is a response from the past or the present, and identify whether it is rational or based on old beliefs we may have. Once we have filtered our emotions, we can then determine how to respond.
While our feelings are real, our interpretations of them may not be accurate.
- The next step is to use emotional regulation skills to increase space between your initial emotion (the low road of our flight or fight response) and your reaction (the high road of thinking and reasoning).
Another way of saying this is that when we react immediately to our initial emotion, the “thinking” part of our brain is offline. We need regulation skills to buy time to allow us to respond reasonably vs instinctually.
Let’s review emotional regulation techniques in more detail:
1. Emotional Regulation Skill #1: Name It to Tame It
It makes sense to avoid an unpleasant emotion because you often feel better in that moment (you decide to avoid the social event and phew, now you feel better).
The problem is that the emotion comes back, but this time it’s stronger and you need more avoidance strategies (i.e., alcohol, food, shopping, distraction) to cope. Avoidance also leads to hyper-vigilance, which means that you now have anxiety about the possibility of this feeling arising again in the future.
Research has shown that efforts to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings actually lead to MORE unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Further, the tendency to constrict or conceal emotional expression is associated with increased physiological arousal and emotion dysregulation.
Avoidance leads to long-term pain.
Rather than avoiding unpleasant emotions, acknowledge their presence and name them specifically. “I’m feeling sad.”
Confide with a friend or someone you trust and share what you are feeling. Talking things out can also help you increase emotional awareness.
Not sure what you’re feeling? Review our Feelings List.
Acknowledging and naming emotions often lead to the emotion losing its power.
What we resist persists. Acknowledging and accepting allows us to let go of pain and discomfort.
2. Emotional Regulation Skill #2: Recognize, Understand & Validate Emotions
Understanding what you feel can help you regulate. You can’t regulate emotions you are confused or unclear about. There are many different ways to become more aware of what you are feeling.
Pay attention to what you are experiencing physiologically in your body.
We each have certain physical signs that show up consistently when we are experiencing particular emotions.
For example, when anxious you may feel butterflies in your stomach. You can use your physical symptoms as clues to what you are experiencing emotionally.
Read through this article on understanding emotions to recognize what they feel like physically and what thoughts are associated with them.
Validate your emotions.
- Recognize that your emotions are present for a valid reason. It is understandable that you are feeling this way, even if you’re not sure why.
- Practice self-compassion and give yourself support for what you are going through.
- Breathe into the experience of this emotion and these sensations. Breathe into a sense of your humanness, with compassion toward yourself for your sensitivities and vulnerabilities.
- Soothe hurt emotions by placing a hand over your body where you feel this experience. Breathe softly into this area. Envision warm, compassionate energy flowing from your heart, through your hand, into the area you are touching with your hand. Allow yourself to receive this nurturing energy.
- Inquire within as to whether there may be something you can do to address this feeling, without any expectation that something needs to be done. Just be curious and notice if any response occurs to you. “What might be helpful?” (Use the list of pleasurable activities to help you).
Research has found that people who are less clear about their emotions are also less aware and less clear about their psychological needs. Identifying and addressing your needs can help with emotion regulation.
3. Emotional Regulation Skill #3: Identify & Resolve Emotional Triggers
Our interpretation of a situation can trigger an emotional reaction. We may also experience false emotions.
Learning to recognize emotional triggers can help with emotional regulation. You can address the underlying issue and change your emotional response.
Regardless of your emotional experience, you always have the choice on how to respond and what to do with the information. Your emotions are one piece of information and it’s important to acknowledge and filter it through other sources available to you.
1. Biological symptoms can trigger false emotions.
Are you hungry, or tired? You may find that you are more irritable than usual.
2. People, places, and things can be emotional triggers.
This can be positive as in the smell of a pie baking filling you with warm feelings of grandma’s house. It can also be negative such as Sunday night anxiety for people burned out at work and dreading the upcoming week.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable and can’t pinpoint what exactly you are feeling, pay attention to any triggers that may have been present.
Triggers can be thoughts, other feelings, or experiences. Ask yourself, what just happened? And before that? Pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Once you identify your trigger, you can implement coping strategies. If all else fails, change your environment and stimuli.
3. Past experiences can trigger our emotional response (vs the present reality).
For example, feeling rejected by a friend who hasn’t called you back when your friend is just very busy. Your past experience of rejection is triggering your emotion vs. the actual present situation.
When emotionally triggered, ask yourself, “what is my interpretation of this situation? Is it based on the present moment or a past experience? What alternate explanations, either positive or neutral, might be possible?”
4. Our interpretation or perception of an event can be an emotional trigger. Thus, what we think, can lead to what we feel.
Thoughts or judgments can trigger emotional reactions. Generally, these are negative emotions. Recognize your thoughts or judgments and try out alternative thoughts or non-judgmental reframes.
Pay particular attention to feelings that feel “caused by” another person. These can often be inaccurate interpretations. CBT therapy can help with this.
5. Unmet needs can be an emotional trigger.
Positive feelings are more likely to occur when our needs are met. Pay attention to what you are feeling and ask yourself, “what do I need?” Use this list for ideas. If this is a recurring feeling it may indicate an unmet need.
6. Beliefs that we have about ourselves can influence our emotions.
For example, say you have an upcoming presentation to give and you are feeling anxious and procrastinating. You may have thoughts such as, “I’m going to embarrass myself,” “I won’t be good enough.”
Your anxiety is telling you to avoid the presentation, but it’s based on your false belief that you are an imposter or inadequate.
7. Your values guide your choices and behavior, not your emotions.
Continuing the example above, your values are that you are responsible and professional and don’t want to let others down.
Your experience tells you that you have given a presentation in the past and received positive feedback.
You also have the knowledge to recognize that this fear is based on an old belief you have of not being good enough.
You can conclude then, though your emotion is giving you information to avoid a situation, your values, experience, and knowledge tell you otherwise.
Check the Facts DBT Emotion Regulation Skill
Another technique to check your interpretation of an event is the DBT Check the Facts skill.
As mentioned, some emotions we experience are set off by our thoughts and interpretations of events, not by the events themselves.
Event – Thought – Emotion
Our emotions can also have a big effect on our thoughts about events.
Event – Emotion – Thoughts
The DBT Check the Facts Skill Can Help you Check Your Interpretation of an Event or Trigger & Change Your Emotional Response
- Ask what is the emotion I want to change?
- Ask, what is the event prompting my emotion? What led you to have this emotion? Who did what to whom? What is it about this event that is a problem for you?
- Check the facts. Look for extremes and judgments in the way you are describing the prompting event. Rewrite the facts to be more objective and descriptive (9 out of 10 people would agree).
- Ask, what are my interpretations, thoughts, and assumptions about the event? What am I assuming? Am I adding my own interpretations to the description of the event?
- Check the facts. Think of other interpretations of the facts. Look at all sides of a situation and all points of view.
- Ask, am I assuming a threat? Assess the probability that the threat will occur.
- Check the facts. Think of as many other possible outcomes as you can.
- Ask, what’s the catastrophe? Imagine the catastrophe occurring. Imagine coping well with the catastrophe.
- Ask, does my emotion and its intensity fit the actual facts? If you are unsure, keep checking the facts. Ask others for their opinions or do an experiment to see if your predictions or interpretations are correct. (Example: irritation fits the facts when your car is cut in front of; road rage does not.) An emotion is justified when your emotion fits the facts.
- If your emotion is not effective, or does not fit the facts:
- Identify opposite actions to your action urges.
- Repeat acting opposite to your action urges until your emotion changes.
- Identify and describe your needs.
- Identify and describe your action urges.
- Ask your wise self whether expressing or acting on this emotion is effective in this situation?
4. Emotion Regulation Skill #4: Practice Mindfulness of Emotion
If your emotions fit the facts, try the following to regulate your feelings:
Mindfulness of Emotion – Wave Meditation
- Take a few deep breaths and scan your body.
- Imagine yourself sitting at the edge of an ocean
- Place your hands on the area of your body where you’re experiencing discomfort
- Imagine breathing in the feeling, bringing it closer to you, just as a wave moves towards you from the ocean to the shore
- Allow the wave to wash over you
- While breathing out, allow the discomfort to pull away from you and recede back into the ocean
- Continue to visualize the waves building, rolling toward then over you than rolling back into the ocean. Align the rhythm of your breathing with the sequence of the waves.
- Try not to block, suppress, or push away the emotion.
- Don’t keep the emotion around, hold onto it, or amplify it.
5. When Your Emotion is Intense Try the Opposite Action
DBT Emotion Regulation Skill: Opposite Action
Every emotion has an action urge. Change the emotion by acting opposite to its action urge. Use the list below to identify opposite action strategies for each emotion.
- Fear – approach, expose yourself to or do what you are afraid of
- Anger – protect your boundaries and stand up for yourself assertively; walk away from those who are threatening; find empathy or compassion for the other person; take a break from those you want to attack
- Disgust – avoid or push away harmful people or things; imagine understanding a person who has done harmful things
- Jealousy – protect what you have
- Sadness – grieve; approach vs. avoid the situation you feel sadness around
- Shame – practice self-compassion; apologize and repair the harm; accept the consequences of your actions, forgive yourself and let it go. If it doesn’t fit the facts, then participate fully in social interactions
- Guilt – seek forgiveness, repair the harm, accept the consequences; repair the transgression and make sure it doesn’t happen again
Repeat acting opposite to your action urges until your emotion changes.
6. Emotion Regulation Skill #6: Grounding, Soothing & Distracting
1. Contain Your Emotions
When emotions are intense or it’s not the right time, visualize yourself putting them into a container on a shelf or in a location you can return to when you have time and space.
2. Practice Heart Breathing
Practice heart breathing. Breathe in deeply imagining you are breathing into your heart and breathing out through your heart. Recall a time you felt good inside and try and re-create the feeling while continuing to breathe deeply and slowly.
Remember a special place or the love you feel for a close friend, relative, or pet. Focus on something you truly appreciate.
3. Use Distracting Activities Strategically
Try activities in one of these categories:
- Calming & Quieting: meditate, breathe, listen to calming music
- Shifting to a Mental Task; solve a puzzle, read
- Comforting the Senses; draw a hot bath, light a scented candle
- Moving; move. your body
- Connecting/Contributing, Expressing Creativity: reach out for support; engage in a creative activity
4. Use Your Senses
- Sight: look at a photo of a favorite person or animal, nature scene, or vacation. Gaze at your favorite color, and watch the view outside.
- Sound: listen to nature sounds, focus on the sound of a ticking clock or fan, listen to yourself breathing, and play energizing or calming music.
- Taste: instead of food, try brushing your teeth, chewing minty gum, sipping on herbal tea or flavored water.
- Aromas: light a scented candle, apply scented lotion, use aromatherapy oils, and smell flowers.
- Physical sensations: Rock or sway gently, caress a favorite fabric or rub a smooth stone, pet your animal, take a hot bath or cold shower, massage your hands, feet, neck, free the breeze/fan, stretch your muscles, clean a room, dance to upbeat music, apply an ice pack or heating pad, go outside for a change in temperature, wet a towel with water and store in a Ziploc in the fridge and use when overwhelmed.
5. Change your physical state:
Put your face in cold water or hold a cold pack or cool towel on your eyes and cheeks and hold your breath for 30 seconds. (This activates your brain’s dive response, slowing down your heart and blood flow, which is calming).
Expend your body’s stored up physical energy by engaging in exercise: jumping up and down, playing basketball, lifting weights, walking fast, running.
Breathe deeply, into your belly, breathe out more slowly than you breathe in.
Practice progressive muscle relaxation
7. Reduce Emotional Vulnerability
The #1 emotional regulation skill you can implement is to protect yourself by increasing your experience of positive emotions.
Increase pleasant events that lead to positive emotions. Do one thing each day. Be mindful of the pleasant event (no multitasking).
Are there activities you enjoy that you can do more often?
Can you change your mindset about the current activities you do? For example, if a task is overwhelming, explore why you do it in the first place? What positive benefit does it bring you?
DBT Emotion Regulation Skills Can Help Improve Emotion Coping
DBT therapy can teach you specific emotion regulation skills that work.
Read this post: Manage Emotional Reactions with DBT to learn more.
Participating in a DBT therapy group can help you learn self-soothing emotion regulation skills. Click here to find out when our next DBT skills group will be available.
Find What Works for You
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for managing difficult thoughts and emotions. What works for one person in a particular situation, may not work for someone else.
The important point is that we all must learn what will work for each of us. Try some of these strategies and get support if you need it. Emotional regulation skills can be learned.
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