Understanding Emotional Regulation

by Dr. Abe Sterne

I strive for calmness and control. Often, that sense of tranquility is exasperatingly close and yet elusive to me. All the more so in recent weeks and months amid the pressure of so much happening in the world around me both close and distant. Nevertheless, I grasp on to the idea of maintaining composure in those daily moments when I am being a parent, or when I am working, or even when I am driving in a city where there are many crazy drivers. But it often slips, and intense feelings flood and overwhelm my equilibrium.

Let’s take a facile example. As I am writing these words, there are children playing outside. I have put two of my kids to sleep, and it was an irritating experience. All I wanted to do was to write down my thoughts and they wanted me to read yet another story. Now it is the evening and already dark at around 8:30 pm. The children outside are screaming as part of their game and having a great time in their paddling pool on the porch. They are loud and laughing. For them it’s fun, but for me, each shriek is like nails on a chalkboard. The sound represents an intrusion into my thought space as I try to write. I feel the heat of emotion rise inside of me. I feel a desire to go out onto the balcony and shout at the children playing down below. There are intruding thoughts of “Where the heck are the parents?” and “Why are these children not taught to be considerate?”

I do none of these things. Instead, I seethe a little and feel frustrated that writing will be a little bit harder than I anticipated. I get back to the task at hand.

This is emotional regulation.

I can modulate my reactions so that I am breaking down my initial outsized emotional reactions to more manageable parts. A process of emotional sublimation that ultimately is likely to keep me safer, rather than reacting and getting into fights. I kickstart a thought process that is aware of the wave of feelings and why they are happening. A thought process is able to think through how I need to react and that establishes calmness and self-control.

The challenge here is how to manage the discrepancy between what a person believes is needed or wanted (I wanted quiet, and children should be quiet in the evening) as opposed to what actually happens (noisy kids that interrupt my work). I often want calmness and self-control to help me deal with a reality that is different from what is desired. Calmness is about having an appropriate response to whatever is happening so that we can have self-control about all the feelings we are experiencing. This is the core of emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation (or calmness and self-control) should not be thought of as suppressing emotions or getting rid of feelings. This would bring the whole brain system to a paralyzing halt. Without feelings, we cannot properly think or respond to our environment, and without the power of motivation, we cannot act.

Our brain needs sufficient emotional energy to work, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.

We all have our own threshold for being overwhelmed, a line that when crossed leads to dysregulation and overwhelming intense emotions. In young children, we call them temper tantrums. My preferred nomenclature is “episodes of distress.” This is because being emotionally dysregulated is typically an unpleasant experience. If we see another person as experiencing dysregulation, calling it distress is more likely to evoke empathy that “temper tantrum.”

Square breathing graphic
Square breathing graphic

While there are many ways in which we can help ourselves and others, I’m going to describe three simple processes and how they can be helpful. First, breathing to slow our body down. Second, try to shift our perspective on what is happening in our brain. Finally, knowing how to share, when breathing and shifting does not seem to work.

There are many factors that lead a person to cross that threshold, and the initial step to finding internal calmness and self-control is to develop a deeper awareness of them. For instance, many individuals have an overly sensitive sensory perception system in which a whisper is a scream, and a soft caress feels like a punch. I know many shy or introverted people who experience overload with the noise and stimulation of too many people in a room. Sensory stimulation can set off a cascade of emotions with an intensity that is hard to control. One way to establish emotional regulation is to be aware of the sensory surroundings and to have a plan to deal with overstimulating sensations. In this situation, controlled breathing is often helpful.

Another way in which many individuals have difficulty with emotional regulation is the intrusive thought that refuses to shift and through the power of maladaptive feelings becomes stuck in the mind. A thought that itself disturbs and distorts reality and creates its own set of overwhelming strong feelings. Like the thought “I will never see him again,” that my son has when I go away on a trip. Part of what to do in this situation is to find ways of having alternative perspectives of the thought. This is not necessarily to battle with the thought or argue with it but perhaps to become aware of its power and how the thought can make you feel emotions that you don’t necessarily want.

We want to develop wisdom about having a thought that intrudes and knowing how to live with it.

Finally, when struggling with emotional regulation, finding ways to share what is going on inside a person's brain can be a very powerful way to become calmer and more collected. Again, this is not necessarily about looking to solve problems or resolve an issue (although that has its benefits), but really that recruiting another person’s rational, reasonable, and regulated brain is a great way of sharing the burden of too much emotion. Sharing feelings is a way of reducing their impact and making sense of them. This was always my preferred way of dealing with outsized feelings, both for childhood and my adult life.

Our feelings operate in their own unique way. This means that each person has to find their own path for managing feelings, and these three ideas of breathing, shifting perspective, and sharing our internal world are just suggestions that may or may not work. It seems to me though, whichever direction a person takes, it is important to be aware of how the brain processes emotions. Critically, we all need to face the fragility of our emotional regulatory systems. We need to realize how fleeting being calm and collected can be, and that holding on to that vulnerability is often the first step to having it.

Dr. Abram Sterne, a licensed clinical psychologist, is one of the lead architects of the app, Emotionary. With a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, he has studied and worked in the field of mental health and clinical work for the last 20 years. His areas of expertise include ADHD, reading disabilities in children, working with parents and families, and emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression.

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