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How to Develop Emotional Self-Regulation

All of us have probably at some point thought that if we could take back what we said or did, things would be different. Or perhaps we acted impulsively because we were carried by our emotions and we reacted without thinking. Being emotionally dysregulated might look like having abrupt changes in mood, binge eating, crying spells, emotional outbursts, persistent interpersonal conflict, aggression or violent outbursts, self-harm, substance use disorder, or poor tolerance for frustration.

Emotional self-regulation is something that we need to practice regularly so we don’t get to the point of blowing up or falling apart. Here’s an article from Healthline that talks about emotional self-regulation and includes tips and techniques we can apply. 

What is emotional self-regulation?
Emotional self-regulation is the ability to modify or control your thoughts, emotions, actions, and words, explains a 2022 research review. Self-regulating your emotional state can stop you from saying or doing things that might hurt others or yourself. Impulsive behaviors can significantly damage personal and professional relationships. Emotional self-regulation lets you pause before you do or say something harmful that may stop you from achieving short or long-term goals.

Emotional self-regulation requires self-control, but it’s much more than simple self-policing. It also includes the ability to reframe challenging or disappointing experiences in positive ways and to live in accordance with your core value system.

Why is it important?
Emotional self-regulation is an important part of empathy. Regulating your feelings and reactions gives you time to listen and take other people’s feelings into account. It also helps you handle disappointment and react rationally to changes that are out of your control.

A child who is quick to throw things or has tantrums has not yet learned how to control their emotions. This can also be true of an aggressive teenager or impulsive young adult. The inability to harness the power of emotional self-regulation can result in negative coping mechanisms, such as substance misuse and other harmful behaviors. In people of all ages, emotional self-regulation gives them the ability to calmly resolve conflict in a rational manner.

Emotional self-regulation doesn’t get rid of anger, sadness, or disappointment. Rather, it provides a framework for dealing with those emotions. It also stops you from making things worse by reacting recklessly or impulsively to situations you can’t control. In this way, it supports emotional well-being, calmness, and serenity.

How does emotional self-regulation develop?
Emotional self-regulation is a skill that improves over time with practice. Children start to acquire this skill through their interactions with other children and their caregivers. Learning emotional regulation helps pave the way for children to become productive, connected adults. But this process doesn’t happen overnight. Things like trauma, neglect, isolation, or stress can delay it further.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls regulatory behaviors like impulse control, reactivity, and flexibility. It develops primarily during adolescence and fully matures when you are around 25 years old. So, though children start to use emotional self-regulation at a young age, they spend many years subconsciously attempting to master it. Of course, even adults have trouble with self-regulatory behaviors sometimes. Extreme stress and overwhelming emotion can get in the way of emotional self-regulation, making it especially difficult to maintain.

Tips and techniques for emotional self-regulation
You can strengthen and bolster emotional self-regulation through self-awareness and daily practice. These tips may help:

  • Get enough sleep: It’s easier to “fly off the handle” when you’re exhausted. Reducing insomnia by practicing good sleep hygiene can help.
  • Eat well: You may have heard the expression “hangry,” which combines the words “hungry” and “angry.” Eating nutritious food at regular intervals can help you avoid hunger. Being hungry can make you irritable and quicker to anger.
  • Exercise: Physical activity has many benefits, including that it can help reduce anxiety. This may help you cope more effectively with stressful situations.
  • Meditation: Practicing mindfulness through meditation can help increase coping skills and have other positive effects on your health.
  • Practice pausing: If someone says or does something upsetting, take several deep breaths before you automatically respond. This can help de-escalate situations that may become damaging or dangerous. One way to do this is to let go of the desire to “win” every encounter or argument. 
  • Acknowledge your emotions: If you’re having trouble coping or are dealing with feelings such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness, consider talking with a therapist. You can also try at-home strategies such as journaling or talking with a trusted friend. 

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