Feeling stressed is often accompanied by a whole host of negative emotions, including anxiety, anger, panic, stress, worry.
The ability to regulate your emotions is one of a set of skills that Goleman (1995) collectively termed emotional intelligence. Other skills included in this term are being able to notice and recognise emotional states in yourself and other people.
Higher levels of emotional intelligence have been shown to correspond with better resilience. Resilient people experience the same emotional reactions as everyone else when stressed, but the difference is they are able to regulate their emotions and bounce back faster.
Growing your emotional intelligence helps you to gain a better balance between your soothing emotion regulation system and your threat regulation system.
Learning to regulate your emotions is not something that will happen overnight, but with practice it’s something everyone can learn how to do. Here are some easy to follow steps that will help you begin to manage your emotions more effectively.
Begin by developing an ‘emotional radar’. The idea is that you will begin to detect your emotional responses as soon as they start so that you can become familiar with your individual stress response patterns.
This body scan technique is an easy and effective way to do this.
Reduce the intensity of negative emotions
When you experience a strong emotion, there are a number of different ways you can reduce the intensity of it. What works for someone else may not work as well for you, so it’s worth testing out a few different strategies until you find something that suits you. Some useful tips on how to do this include:
- Remove yourself from the situation and take time out. This will allow your body and mind time to calm.
- Use a slow breathing technique. Breathing with a regular rhythm balances the carbon dioxide and oxygen in your bloodstream, slowing the fight/flight response. Try breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 6, with a pause between each cycle. You may find it more comfortable to breathe in a different rhythm than that, so work out what feels best for you. The important thing is to ensure that you keep the exhale longer than the inhale. To help it come naturally to you when you need it, practice breathing like this for 5-10 minutes twice a day.
- Mindfulness and other forms of meditation provide you with immediate relief from stress and can help to build a more robust soothing emotion regulation system, as well as diminishing the size of the threat system.
- Acknowledging and accepting your emotional response, instead of worrying about it or judging yourself will help to reduce the strength of the emotion and lessen its impact on your regulatory system. You could try writing a diary or talking to a friend or supportive colleague to help you do this.
Watch out for unhelpful coping strategies
Sometimes we unconsciously resort to unhelpful coping strategies when we are under pressure or are feeling intense negative emotion. These may include rumination, overthinking, suppression or avoidance. Or you may rely on physical behaviours such as drinking alcohol. Whilst these types of strategies may make you feel better in the short term, they tend to increase stress in the long term and can be unhealthy in both a mental and a physical sense.
Once you have found what works for you and started practicing the exercises, you will notice that they begin to become second nature and after time you will regulate your emotions without having to think about it.