Most of the time, once you get the hang of it, emotion regulation works pretty quickly and automatically. Something like this:
“Argh! That bastard is late! Fuck him! He has never shown the slightest bit of consideration to anyone! When he gets here I am going to give him a piece of my mind! –Wait. I see I’m angry. Is this reasonable? Well, probably a little bit, being late is kind of a dick move, but this seems to be rather too much anger to have about him being five minutes late. I should try to see things from his point of view. Maybe he got stuck in traffic. Oh, there he is, I am still a little ticked at him but I’ll probably be fine once he apologizes.”
Unfortunately, sometimes emotion regulation doesn’t work nearly so well. In this post, I will outline a checklist for troubleshooting when you’re having an emotion you’re having a hard time regulating.
- Are you in crisis?
Signs you’re in crisis: You’re overwhelmed. You’re in extreme distress. You can’t think about anything except what you’re feeling. Your brain has stopped processing information. You are having a hard time solving problems. You’re fantasizing about escaping it. You’re having self-destructive urges. You can’t even think about using emotion regulation skills.
You might have your own crisis signs: for instance, for me, breaking down crying is almost always a sign that I’m in crisis.
Even if you’re in crisis, you can still behave in an effective way. Noticing that you’re in crisis is a great first step. The next step is to use crisis survival skills until you feel better and can handle the situation.
2. Are you biologically vulnerable?
Are you sick? Are you in pain? Are you hungry? Did you get enough sleep last night? Are you drunk or high? Did you miss your meds? Did you miss exercise today? Are you cold? Do you have to interact with one of your sensory sensitivities– loud noises, fluorescent lights, itchy clothes?
If you can solve these problems relatively quickly, do that. Eat a quick snack. Take a brief nap. Take your meds. Change into non-itchy clothes. Put on a sweater. If you can’t– if you’re trapped in the place with fluorescent lights, or if you’re trying your best to treat your insomnia which means no naps– then even knowing “oh, I probably feel more stressed because I am tired and in a place with evil lights” often helps you regulate your emotions better.
3. Can you quickly solve whatever you’re upset about?
If you’re lonely, can you email a friend to set a time to hang out this weekend? If you’re locked outside of your apartment, can you talk to your landlord so they can let you in? If you feel like shit because you didn’t get your homework done, can you do your homework? It is astonishing how often people skip this very simple step.
4. Mindfulness of current emotion.
Step back and just notice what you’re feeling. Think of it as a mental event: something that’s happening in your brain, not something you are. Don’t act on what you’re feeling right now. You can do that in a bit! If you take a minute to just be aware of what you’re feeling, you will be perfectly capable of acting on your emotion afterward.
Don’t try to block your emotion, put it away, or stop feeling it. But also don’t try to keep it around or make it bigger. A lot of times, emotions feed on themselves. You feel frightened, which makes you think about the thing that frightens you more, which makes you more frightened, until you are curling in a corner under a blanket. (This is a useful trick for making an emotion more intense, if you’d like to do that– just focus on what’s causing the emotion.) Right now, don’t think about what caused your emotion: just think about the emotion.
If you like, notice where in your body you feel the emotion. Try to describe what you’re feeling. Experience the sensations of your emotion as fully as you can.
Separate yourself from your emotion. Don’t think “I am angry”; think “I’m experiencing anger”. Remember times when you’ve felt different emotions, like fear or sadness or love. Many times, people hold on to their emotions by thinking “there isn’t any other way that I can be.” That isn’t true.
Don’t judge your emotions! A lot of times, people have thoughts like “I’m a loser” or “why can’t I be normal?” or “here I go again”, and those thoughts often cause more damage than the emotion itself. Just think “okay, here’s an emotion. This emotion is definitely what’s going on right now.” If you can– it is very hard, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t– try to have an attitude that’s curious and respectful about your emotions. Your emotions evolved to keep you safe and happy; sometimes they can be terribly misguided, but you can certainly respect their good intentions. And you can think “huh, I wonder why I feel this way. I wonder what’s going on. ”
5. Do you know what you’re feeling?
A surprisingly difficult problem! It is very hard to regulate emotions if you don’t know which emotion you’re regulating in the first place. If you’re having trouble knowing exactly what emotion you are currently experiencing, this might help.
6. Is there anything you need to radically accept?
You are not going to do emotion regulation very well unless you’re willing to do it. Are you committed to doing the best you can, playing the hand you’re dealt, dealing with the circumstances that you’re presented with no matter how fucking unfair they are? Or are you reluctant, dragging your feet, throwing an internal tantrum about how the universe has decided to make you its own personal buttmonkey? Are you trying to face reality as it is, without minimizing and without catastrophizing? Or are you mired in bitterness, denial, avoidance, and self-pity?
If the latter, radical acceptance and willingness may help.
7. Are there any myths about emotions getting in the way?
You might have judgmental myths about your emotions: “this emotion is stupid”; “I should be grateful”; “there’s something wrong with me”; “there’s a right way to feel in this situation”. You might believe that your emotions and identity are the same: “my emotions are who I am”; “I am going to feel this way forever”; “I’m trapped”.
There are two approaches you can take to dealing with emotion myths. First, you can work on thinking nonjudgmentally. Try describing the situation without using interpretations or judgments, sticking to objective facts. Not “I feel so afraid, there’s something wrong with me! Why do I feel something so stupid? There’s nothing to be afraid of!” but instead “I am at the grocery store. I feel afraid. I want to go home. I also want to finish my shopping, so there will be food in the house. I don’t think anything bad will happen if I keep shopping. I am judging myself for being frightened.”
Second, you can think dialectically. There’s probably some kernel of truth in the myth, or else you wouldn’t believe it. If your myth is “I should be grateful”, then maybe it’s true that a lot of people would be grateful in this situation, or that people are expecting you to be grateful. Then, think about the kernel of truth in the opposing viewpoint that you shouldn’t be grateful: perhaps you got something you didn’t actually want, or you’re in a tremendous amount of pain. You can unite those truths: “well, that person is expecting me to be grateful, but they gave me something I didn’t actually want, so that’s actually kind of a ludicrous expectation on their part.”
(Of course, you can do both!)
8. Is there some benefit you’re getting from this emotion?
Does your emotion feel good? For instance, do you like feeling righteously angry, like you’re rebelling against an unjust world? If so, think about the pros and cons of changing your emotions. You may remind yourself of the costs of your anger, so that you feel less motivated to act on it; alternately, you may find that you should enjoy the righteous anger.
Does your emotion communicate things to others? For instance, does your girlfriend only recognize that you have a legitimate grievance when you burst out sobbing? If so, you should probably talk to the person you’re communicating things to. You may need to work on being able to assert your desires, feelings, and boundaries without dysregulated emotions. Alternately, you can try pointing out the pattern to the person you’re communicating things to; if your girlfriend is a reasonable human being, she may be willing to recognize that your needs matter even when you aren’t crying.
Does your emotion motivate you to do things you want to do? For instance, do you only write papers if you’re afraid that your professor will be angry at you? If so, you should work on developing alternate ways of motivating yourself.
Does your emotion make you feel like your beliefs or your identity is legitimate? For instance, do you feel like if you don’t break down in tears when people misgender you then you aren’t a real trans person? If so, concentrate on telling yourself that your beliefs and identity are legitimate regardless of what your emotions are; whether or not you cry when people misgender you does not affect whether your gender identity is real.
It is important to note that, in many cases, these benefits are enough reason to keep having the emotion. If you gain significant benefits from an emotion, reconsider whether it’s a good idea to regulate it right now. It is extremely important that when an extreme emotion meets some of your needs but you also would like to regulate it, you figure out a way to get the needs met anyway. Otherwise, your attempts at emotion regulation will not work.
8. Use emotion regulation skills.
The first potential pitfall here is not using emotion regulation skills. The best advice in the world won’t work unless you put it into practice.
The second potential pitfall is using inappropriate skills. For instance, you might use distress tolerance skills on a problem you really ought to be solving, and wind up running away from your problems. You might use opposite action on guilt and refuse to apologize for something that is actually unethical.
The third pitfall is not using the skills correctly. For instance, when a lot of people check the facts, they say something like “I got rejected from a job that I was really hoping I would get, because I am a complete failure at life and no one will ever want to hire me for a job again and then I will starve on a street corner”, and then they wonder why they are still sad. The problem here, of course, is that they aren’t separating the facts and their interpretations: the facts are “I got rejected from a job I was really hoping I would get. I’m not sure why I got rejected. I feel really sad. I worry I won’t ever find a job.” Everything else is their interpretations, and some other set of interpretations (“I just wasn’t a right fit for this company”) may be far more accurate.