Emotions are a central part of the human experience, and when individuals are challenged by the stressors of life and attend therapy for support emotions are also a key component of the work that is done in therapy. In my clinical work with individuals across the lifespan, one of the most common issues I have observed is the challenge individuals may have with regulating their emotions. Interestingly, this challenge with regulating emotions seems to manifest in several different mental health concerns, with some concerns being more commonly associated with specific emotion regulation difficulties. But, what is Emotion Regulation?
Well, to keep it as simple as possible, think about emotion regulation as a process whereby individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them and how they experience and express them (Gross, 1998). These efforts at modifying emotional experiences and expressions typically have, as a part of their goal, the individual trying to respond to their environment in a healthy and acceptable way. Therefore, one’s ability to regulate their emotions impacts on their ability to adapt successfully to their environment and maintain a sense of psychological well-being.
On the other hand, when individuals are not able to do so effectively, they may be more vulnerable to challenges with their mental health. Moreover, it may not be surprising that there are several different strategies that people use to regulate their emotions – and while it’s tricky to say that a strategy is “good” or “bad” (since it really depends on the situation), there are some strategies that are more adaptive/healthy and others that are regarded as maladaptive/unhealthy. While there are probably too many different strategies for me to cover in this blog, I thought I would highlight some of the more helpful and less helpful ones that I speak about most frequently in my work with clients.
Less Helpful Emotion Regulation Strategies
Suppression – At times, individuals may engage in suppression of their thoughts and emotions, this means that they try to hide how they are feeling internally or push the thoughts and feelings as far out of their awareness as possible. But does out of sight really mean out of mind? Unfortunately, not in this case. What decades of research tells us is that when individuals suppress their emotions their experience of the difficult emotion is more intense than if they had not suppressed at all. This means that it might be more effective for us to develop pathways to working through an emotion rather than trying to “get over it” or otherwise push it aside.
Rumination – Many people may become trapped in a cycle of rumination, whereby the individual may engage in repetitive thinking about a situation and its causes which fuels the negative emotions that have arisen. This regulatory strategy is probably the individual’s best effort to try to analyse or solve a problem that is causing them a great deal of distress, except no solution emerges – especially in cases where the problem is “unsolvable”. To understand this strategy, I often use the metaphor of watching a washing machine – where all the thoughts and emotions just continuously go around and around and around and…well you get the idea.
More Helpful Emotion Regulation Strategies
Cognitive reappraisal - refers to changing the meaning or interpretation of an experience to manage the emotional response. The reappraisal is typically centred on the situation itself or the individual’s capacity to manage its demands. In other words, HOW we think about the situation and our ability to manage it can very much change the emotional experience we have while going through it or change the way we feel about what has already happened.
Acceptance - The individual is aware of the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing, and they remain open to these internal experiences without feeling the need to change the thoughts or emotions that are present. There is a recognition here that neither thoughts nor emotions are dangerous, and we have control over how we respond to them. Developing acceptance as a strategy can be challenging, especially when we are so used to wrestling with thoughts and emotions that come up in response to life’s challenges. However, we can indeed develop a more accepting style of coping. When individuals view thoughts and emotions as inherently negative, they are more likely to engage in problematic behaviours like avoidance and withdrawal.
The role of parents in developing a child’s capacity to regulate their emotions
From the very beginning of life, parents have a crucial role to play in children’s development of healthy emotion regulation. Early aspects of a child’s emotional life are guided by their parents’ selection of situations for them, especially while they are infants. Parents take the lead on deciding what children can and cannot manage emotionally, simply because at this stage children do not know enough about the world to make such determinations for themselves.
Parents generate routines that are comfortable for the child. Such practices are a normal part of the early parent-child dynamic. However, as children get older and mature, and their pool of life experiences expand, they are expected to take more responsibility for such regulatory processes and parents are expected to oversee and guide this self-regulation. Therefore, as children mature, they learn which situations to avoid or approach, when they can modify situations externally, and when they may need to make internal modifications in order to cope. Parents ideally model healthy emotion regulation as well, by way of their responses to situations which children observe and learn from overtime.
If you would like support with developing more healthy strategies for regulating your emotions and reducing the tendency to use unhelpful strategies contact us at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.