Life is unpredictable, and so are our emotions. There’s no manual dictating when you’ll experience the myriad of different feelings humans do, so it’s something you have to figure out on your own. You’re probably already aware of your feelings at a given moment. You know that you laugh more when you’re feeling happy; when you’re sad, you cry. Great! Do you know why you’re experiencing that emotion, or what your triggers are, or what healthy coping mechanisms to use?
If not, you’re not alone. Regulating emotions and the associated skills are things many adults struggle with, especially if they never learned proper emotional intelligence skills as a child. It involves more than just identifying feelings.
But how do you do it? Don't worry, we'll go over exactly how to regulate your emotions.
What Is Emotion Regulation?
You know those moments when you feel overwhelmingly angry or sad? Emotional regulation is about finding ways to deal with those intense feelings in a healthy and productive way. It’s knowing that you control how you feel, not the other way around.
There’s no right way to practice emotion regulation. Every person is different, and so are their emotional needs and coping strategies. Research validates this diversity. A study published in Emotion found that middle-aged adults (40-64) were more likely to use “proactive emotion-regulation strategies” than younger or older adults, which means they think about how their emotions happen. They confront their emotions head-on, actively reflect on their experience and implement a strategy. On the other hand, another study has shown that middle-aged adults are more likely to avoid negative incidents and keep the peace.
Why Is Emotional Regulation Important?
While achieving emotional regulation can be difficult, the benefits are endless. Becoming emotionally intelligent opens the door to reducing stress, having higher-quality relationships and improving mood. If your mood is typically “all over the place,” it impacts your ability to function whether you notice it or not. With regulated emotions, you can stabilize your day-to-day interactions with yourself and others—leading to a more balanced life.
Examples of Emotional Regulation Skills
A few examples of emotional regulation skills are:
Grounding techniques (like the STOP method)
How To Regulate Your Emotions, According to a Therapist
If you’re puzzled about how to start, don’t worry. Here are some of my top tips backed by evidence-based strategies to help, starting with the most effective.
1. See a professional
The best way to start learning how to emotionally regulate yourself is to work with a mental health professional. We’re trained to help you get to the root of the symptoms you’re experiencing, making emotional regulation a more intentional and insightful process. Look for therapists specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
However, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a therapeutic approach aimed at helping people learn how to regulate their emotions. While it’s a well-known intervention for borderline personality disorder and people with severe depression, anyone can use it.
2. Learn to identify your emotions
A huge part of emotion regulation is identifying what emotion you’re feeling. Keep a journal to track your experiences and how you react to them. Ask yourself: What’s happening in my body? What thoughts are going through my head? What happened to cause these feelings? Figuring this out builds your self-awareness, making figuring out how to cope easier.
3. Set goals
Break down what you want to accomplish into small, actionable steps to make it less overwhelming. The SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) helps you create realistic and achievable goals, which is a big part of keeping a positive mindset as you learn new coping mechanisms. Also, don’t forget to celebrate when you reach a goal!
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the best coping mechanisms to help regulate emotions. If going to a yoga class isn’t your thing, try a simpler approach, like 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale for four seconds, hold that breath for seven seconds and breathe out for eight seconds. Make this evidence-backed practice a habit in the morning when you wake up and right before you go to bed to feel more regulated. You can also use this technique to ground you during a panic attack or other heightened emotional states.
5. Feel your feelings
You can’t learn how to recognize your emotions unless you actually feel them. Give yourself a chance to express whatever emotion you’re feeling in the moment rather than holding it off until a later date. If you’re scared or upset, take a few seconds to calm down before moving on. It’s vital (and liberating) to give yourself the space and freedom to feel your feelings.
6. Validate what you’re feeling
We are often our own worst critics. Validating your emotions helps you understand what’s going on in your brain, while simultaneously disarming your inner critic and legitimizing what you’re going through. You can do this by journaling, practicing affirmations, or simply telling yourself, “It’s okay.” Give yourself grace. Remember, you’re a human, which means you will get frustrated, upset, sad or nervous at some point.
7. Use positive affirmations
As a part of validating, and ultimately regulating, your emotions, practice saying or writing positive affirmations. Here are some examples:
My feelings are valid.
I am allowed to feel this way.
The emotions I’m feeling right now aren’t going to last forever; they are only temporary.
I am not defined by the [emotion] I’m feeling.
8. Avoid suppressing your emotions
It’s easy to want to push your emotions aside; some feelings are hard to tackle. However, when you internalize negative emotions (intentionally or unintentionally), it only makes them worse. It can increase anxiety and depression, making it harder to function. Suppressing positive emotions isn’t good, either. So what does work? Finding a balance between letting everything out and holding everything in equals healthy emotional expression.
9. Get some rest
Amid a busy schedule, prioritizing your mental health often takes a backseat. After all, emotionally regulating yourself can be exhausting. However, just like it’s important to give yourself grace, it’s also important to get rest. Whether that means removing yourself from a situation, getting a good night’s sleep or any other method of rest, taking time to process how you feel outside of a heightened state is one of the best ways to practice emotional regulation.