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Regulating Emotions: Practice the Pause

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

What does it mean to regulate our emotions? While we experience many emotional responses all day, some feelings can feel “bigger” than others, sometimes to a point where we can’t focus on anything at all besides our emotions. When we don’t regulate our emotions, we react quickly, and often negatively to the situation at hand. We can use many different therapeutic skills to help us regulate our emotions. It may not feel natural at first, because our natural response is to react with the information our emotions have given us. But with practice, we can begin to distinguish between the feeling we have and how we choose to respond to that feeling. That’s emotional regulation.

A Cognitive-Behavioral approach would ask us to identify the thoughts that make us feel a certain way. Thoughts are easier to change than feelings, so ask yourself: what do I think is creating this emotion? Am I telling myself I made a mistake and therefore am a failure? That thought is certainly going to cause feelings of frustration and shame. Maybe you are jumping ahead in your thoughts and thinking because I made a mistake today, I will get fired from my job and have no place to live. That thought is going to cause a lot of stress and anxiety. When we approach our feelings, especially the big ones, with a sense of curiosity, we can explore the thought process rather than identify with the feeling.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a treatment modality that digs deep into emotional regulation strategies. One strategy unique to DBT is called “opposite action.” This means that when you’re feeling emotionally triggered, you react the opposite way you would normally respond. For instance, your partner may pick a fight with you, and instead of yelling back defensively, you decide to try the opposite behavior and calmly tell your partner you hear their concerns and would like to discuss them when you are feeling more regulated. Or if you are at a party where you don’t know anyone and your usual impulse is to slip away without talking to anyone, try to stay present and do the opposite: face the fear and talk to just one person at the party before leaving.

Mindfulness offers us a way to practice curiosity around our feelings and courage in being present with them through sitting calmly with the emotion before we respond. Mindfulness is an important skill in DBT therapy and CBT because it helps us to stop identifying with our emotion, but rather listen to the emotion’s message. Feeling anxious? It doesn’t have to mean that you identify as a fearful person. Anxiety has come to visit your body with a message that something in your life is unknown or uncertain, causing you to feel afraid. Before you try to deny or repress that feeling, or conversely, respond to it as a true emergency, sit with it. Notice what happens in your body: maybe your breathing is shallow, maybe your stomach hurts or your shoulders tighten. Focus on your breath and bring yourself back to the present with the message that you are safe here and now. Sometimes, when we sit with our strong emotions, it is enough to make us realize these feelings are not you and they will pass.

All these modalities have in common that they ask us to pause before we react. Easier said than done! But it’s amazing how allowing that space between our feelings and our reaction can change how we respond and how the situation itself unfolds. Regarding brain science, our prefrontal cortex (the frontal lobe of the brain) is in charge of regulating our emotions and managing our responses. When under stress, the prefrontal cortex signals are weakened, and our older, more primitive brain begins to respond instead. This is the part of the brain that told you millions of years ago to run as fast as you could when you heard a sabertooth tiger or would flood your system with adrenaline so that you have the strength to spear the approaching mammoth. These old responses to stress don’t serve us in modern society anymore but persist. That’s where practicing the pause comes in. The old saw of “counting to ten” is useful because it allows time for your prefrontal cortex, your ‘modern thinking’ brain, to return online. When you can get feedback from this part of your brain, you can respond more moderately because that part of our brain is engaging with other parts of the brain to regulate your emotions and engage rationally instead of instinctively.

We are all deeply feeling, emotional humans, which is beautiful. But when you feel overwhelmed and lost in your emotions, remember to “pause for the cause.” Use emotional regulation skills to ride the wave of your feelings, rather than being drowned by them.

To explore these skills further, check out the resources linked here:

By: Alison Rogers Napoleon, MSW Intern


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