The ability to regulate emotions impacts all areas of our lives – mental and emotional wellbeing, interpersonal skills, relationship satisfaction, emotional intimacy, and employment opportunities, to name a few.
Often, we easily recognize overt displays of emotion dysregulation. The person in our lives who is “too” sensitive. The one with whom we must walk on eggshells or risk their wrath.
We frequently overlook covert signs of emotion dysregulation, i.e., emotion suppression and alexithymia (a rare condition in people who are unable to identify or express emotion). We assume these people are aloof or cold and fail to realize they are as emotionally overwhelmed as those who overtly communicate their distress.
While we can learn to exert control over our emotional responses, we cannot deny the physiological origins of our emotions: our limbic system, the emotional hub in our brains consisting of the cingulate gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus, hippocampus, amygdala, septal area, and hypothalamus (Rajmohan & Mohandas, 2007).
The amygdala is in the power position - regulating our fear response (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) and standing guard as a protective factor to warn us of perceived danger. Studies have shown that childhood trauma alters the development of the amygdala. The resulting changes are thought to heighten fear responses. The fight/flight responses of the “overly” sensitive and the freeze/fawn responses of the “aloof” are both due to the amygdala’s activation of the fear response.
Emotion Regulation Skills
Whether you display your emotion dysregulation overtly or covertly, i.e., over- or underreacting, the skills necessary to modulate your emotions are the same. Cognitive Behavioral, Dialectical Behavioral, and Acceptance, and Commitment Therapies all have sound strategies. I prefer an eclectic mix using tools from all these modalities.
Pause before responding to emotional stimuli.
Identify what you are feeling.
Name the specific emotion.
How does it manifest?
Accept the feeling.
I am feeling ______.
Do not judge yourself or your feeling.
Use visualization to release the emotion.
Challenge your cognitions.
Identify the triggering person/event.
Identify your interpretation of the triggering event and examine your assumptions for truth.
Are your emotions proportional to the actual person/event or your assumptions?
When you feel like doing something you know you will regret later or something that is not conducive to your mental health, intentionally implement the opposite action(s).
When angry, rather than fighting, yelling, or sending aggressively worded emails, talk quietly, be polite, take a break.
When sad or depressed, don’t withdraw from your community; embrace it.
Purpose to focus on the positive.
Practice routine self-care.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC
Rajmohan, V. & Mohandas, E. (2007, April-June). The limbic system. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(2), 132-139. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917081/