The Secret of Emotional Regulation
by Kristen Milliron, LCSW, Denver Mental Health Therapist
Emotions! We all have them and we all face circumstances when we have a hard time managing and coping with our emotions, whether it be anger, anxiety, sadness, depression, jealousy, fear, etc.
So what is the secret? How do you manage your emotions in a healthy way?
When we face unexpected situations that trigger a strong emotional reaction our instinct is to try to control the circumstances and situations in our lives. This often makes things worse, triggering us to feel more out of control. When we are triggered there is this sense of urgency. We may feel desperate for a solution and relief from our anxiety. Powerful emotions motivate us to take action, unfortunately those actions can make things worse because we are “not thinking.”
“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don't lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.” ― Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night
When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala, part of the brain's limbic system, automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger. The frontal lobe where thinking, reasoning, decision making and planning is shut down. Scientists call this the amygdala hijack, adrenaline (norepinephrine) is doing the thinking for us.
The key in regulating emotions is to slow things down. The survival instinct has our mind racing, we can only think of trying to escape or run. First, give yourself permission to take a timeout pause and ask yourself the question “Am I in danger?” Asking yourself questions brings your problem solving mind back online. Answering the question “What do I really want?” helps us gain perspective and see the big picture. When we start focusing on changing our thoughts by pausing and asking questions we start regulating our emotions.
In the instances when you want to work towards shutting down your adrenaline response, Kerry Patterson sums it up in her book "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High":
“Clarify what you don’t want, add it to what you do want, and ask your brain to start searching for healthy options.”
The survival instinct is a common theme to any extreme emotional response, so that question is “am I in danger in this moment?” If the answer is “no”, then you don’t need to react. And that is
so much easier said than done.
So, what can you do to help manage and regulate your emotional response?
● Talk to a trusted family member, friend, or Mental Health Professional
● Exercise and stay active
● Write in a journal, put your feelings on paper
● Meditate, practice mindfulness and breathing techniques
● Take care of yourself, especially when physically ill
● Get adequate sleep and practice good sleep habits
● Pay attention to negative thoughts that occur before or after strong emotions
● Find ways to have fun
● Utilize the STOPP method– A Technique Designed by Carol Vivyan to Manage Your Emotions ○ S – Stop
○ T – Take A Breath
○ O – Observe – your thoughts and feelings
○ P- Pull Back – put in some perspective – what is the bigger picture?
○ P – Practice What Works – Proceed – what is the best thing to do right now?
“You don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared and anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a negative person. It makes you human.” — Lori Deschene
The most important thing to remember is to recognize your patterns and emotional reactions and implement tools to help you manage your emotions. Prioritizing your mental health is a daily practice. Have someone who you can talk to about these situations. Reach out to friends, co-workers, family or a mental health professional.
I believe that prioritizing your mental health is a daily practice. Need help putting yourself first? Reach out.
Kristen Milliron, LCSW sees patients in-person at The Facility in Denver, CO and is accepting new patients (Telehealth and In-person).
Learn more about Kristen's Therapy Style here.
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