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What is emotional regulation? 6 skills that can help

Last updated

23 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Your nervous system experiences physical-biological states known as emotions. These emotions help signal rewards and threats, which helps you make the right decisions.

However, even with your best intentions, emotions can spin out of control. Whether you’re provoked by another person, experience a personal failure, or are worried about a family member, your unchecked emotions can have significant consequences. That’s why it’s crucial to understand emotional regulation—what it is, how it works, and what it can mean for your emotions.

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to control your emotional state. It’s often achieved by rethinking challenging situations to reduce anxiety, sadness, or fear or by focusing on reasons to feel happy.

Figuring out how to manage emotions is something everyone can learn and improve on—especially in today’s world, where we’re influenced into feeling different emotions much faster than we were ever meant to. As a result, becoming emotionally aware helps you better control these emotional states.

Why is emotional regulation necessary?

Although emotional regulation is often tied to feeling better, there are several other benefits associated with it:

  • Improving work performance

  • Helping with personal relationships

  • Better overall health

Emotions affect your mood, meaning emotional regulation can improve your mood, too. It can also help increase empathy and compassion for others. For instance, just like a kettle needs to release steam to prevent overpressure, your emotions also need an outlet to ensure they don’t build up to the point of exploding.

Useful emotional regulation skills

There are various skills that can help people regulate and sustain emotions during difficult times.

1. Self-awareness

Noticing what types of emotions you are feeling can help you regulate them. However, this doesn’t mean you should react to every emotion you have. Rather, self-awareness is just about acknowledging what is happening in your mind and becoming self-aware of what types of feelings you turn to in certain situations.

2. Mindful awareness

Staying mindful allows you to gain awareness and explore and identify what really matters to you. It involves being present and observing things without judgment.

Simple exercises, such as breath work or sensory relaxation, can help you tune into how you are doing and feeling and provide more insight into what you can do to calm your body and guide your actions.

3. Cognitive reappraisal

When it comes to psychotherapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and anger management, cognitive reappraisal is a crucial element. This method involves changing how you think, helping you become more open-minded and adaptable to challenging situations.

To develop cognitive reappraisal skills, you might use techniques like replacing negative thoughts with positive ones or imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes to see a stressful situation from a different perspective.

4. Adaptability

Adjusting to life changes becomes even more challenging when you’re experiencing emotional dysregulation. It can lead to ineffective coping mechanisms and increased susceptibility to distractions.

Objective evaluation is one way to improve adaptability. It’s an assessment of something based on unbiased criteria and evidence rather than personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudices. It aims to achieve a fair, neutral, and balanced judgment by relying on quantifiable data and observable facts.

5. Self-compassion

Spending a few minutes daily to concentrate on yourself can help improve your emotional regulation abilities. For instance, when you acknowledge your strengths and keep your mind receptive and flexible, you can significantly enhance your emotional responses.

Here are some ways to incorporate self-compassion into your schedule:

  • Relaxation and breath control

  • Compassion meditation

  • Daily positive self-affirmations

  • Gratitude journaling

  • Regular self-care

6. Emotional support

Developing solid emotional skills can help you avoid getting caught up in everyday negativity, which can zap your emotional strength. You can improve your emotional well-being by practicing self-awareness and seeking support from others through positive communication.

Your ultimate goal should be to build a healthy emotional shield that allows you to channel your feelings in a positive way, bringing out your best self. Because of this, it’s a good idea to seek professional help when your internal coping mechanisms don’t seem to be working.

Coaching and mentorship provide a confidential environment where people can openly share their fears, aspirations, challenges, and feelings without judgment.

Common challenges to emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is a very personal endeavor. Although some people were raised with excellent coping skills, others may have had little to no behavioral guidance growing up. These people may need to invest time into learning and improving their emotional regulation skills as a result, enabling them to overcome challenges.

What causes poor emotional regulation?

Causes of poor emotional regulation can include child neglect, childhood trauma, and traumatic brain injury.  In other circumstances, people may have a biological predisposition to emotional reactivity. This can be provoked by invalidation, leading to emotional dysregulation.

Technology today has become a massive problem for emotional regulation. This is because technology gives us a place to hide and ignore natural emotions. It provides instant gratification and overexposure to stimulating content. The removal of face-to-face interaction and text-based communication leads to heightened emotional responses.

What is emotional regulation disorder?

Difficulty managing emotions and feelings is a brain-related symptom called emotional dysregulation.

This condition often indicates underlying brain-related conditions or differences in brain function. It’s not typically a severe issue, but it can become more serious depending on the situation. Fortunately, there are ways to manage this disorder.

There are usually three main groups that tend to experience emotional dysregulation:

  • Individuals with mental health conditions who might have difficulties with self-control, mood, and personality disruptions

  • Individuals who are neurodivergent

  • Individuals with brain damage

In addition, people who experience emotional regulation disorder may have a challenging time accepting their emotional responses. This can lead to behavioral dysregulation.

Behavioral dysregulation can include things like self-harm, suicidal ideation and attempts, impulsivity, and substance abuse. The main reason for these behaviors is to immediately decrease current emotional distress.

People with severe emotional regulation disorder tend to be diagnosed incorrectly with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder because of their extreme mood changes.

Signs of emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation refers to the inability to control or manage emotional responses to certain situations or stimuli. The effects are most visible in speech and behavior. However, some other common examples of emotional dysregulation include the following:

  • Mood control difficulties, which can cause you to feel stuck or unable to feel better, especially when dealing with negative emotions, such as anxiety or depression

  • Becoming easily upset or frustrated by minor inconveniences or annoyances

  • Mania or hypomania

  • Emotions interfering with how you pursue your objectives and goals or try to achieve desired outcomes

  • Losing your temper easily

  • Mood swings and impulsive behavior

  • Constant irritability or anger in between outbursts

Severe emotional dysregulation is known to disrupt a person’s life, social relationships, and career by causing disruptive symptoms. Here are some of the more severe symptoms of emotional dysregulation:

  • Displaying aggressive or violent behavior toward objects, animals, or people

  • Verbal expressions of strong emotions, such as shouting, yelling, screaming, or crying

  • Having difficulty maintaining friendships, relationships, or other social connections

How can you improve emotional regulation?

Several skills can help you self-regulate your emotions. Here are some top tips you can start trying today:

Try to calm your nervous system in the moment

Emotions can quickly take over without warning. Even when you don’t consciously decide to become angry, it’s something that can just happen, depending on the circumstances.

Therefore, pausing and taking a breath is the most valuable skill for managing challenging emotions. By slowing down the time between a trigger and a response, you can better calm your nervous system and regulate your emotions.

Consider accepting how you feel

Another crucial skill is being able to recognize and acknowledge your emotions.

Take a moment to connect with yourself and ask: which parts of my body am I sensing discomfort or unease in? Do I have any physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, a racing heart, or tension in my neck or head?

These physical indicators can provide insight into your emotional state. Examining them can help shift attention away from your emotions and reduce the intensity of the feelings they cause.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness can help you be more present as it encourages you to focus on your internal state. Using your senses, try to observe your surroundings non-critically. This can help you maintain composure and prevent negative thought patterns during times of emotional distress.

You can practice mindfulness through yoga, meditation, walking in nature, or even working out.

Habit control

One easy way to help regulate emotions is by reducing bad habits and improving good ones. For example, you might try to put your phone down instead of scrolling mindlessly. Studies have shown that an average adult spends over three hours and 15 minutes on their phone. Reducing this time not only helps with mental health but reduces stress as well.

Try to engage in stress management

Managing stress effectively can free you from its hold on your life. Stress management allows you to enjoy improved happiness, health, and productivity. It can also help you achieve a balanced lifestyle that includes time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun while also building resilience to handle pressure and overcome challenges.

However, stress management is only one solution. In many instances, to manage stress, people need to experiment with different methods to uncover what works best for them, depending on the circumstances.

Consider therapeutic support

Seeking therapeutic support can be highly beneficial when dealing with emotional regulation challenges. Through therapy, coaching, or mentorship, you can delve into the underlying causes of your emotional struggles.

It can be a great resource that enables you to explore possible causes of poor emotional regulation. It also provides a safe space to learn more about emotional regulation and practice new skills. You can replace these patterns with positive behavioral changes that can improve your quality of life.

Here are some useful types of therapy:

Emotional regulation therapy (ERT)

ERT is a person-centered approach to dealing with affective regulation. It’s based on theory and evidence.

This type of therapy combines principles from traditional and modern therapies to provide a framework for improving interventions. Its focus is to enhance emotional regulation and help people acknowledge, identify, and figure out their emotions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT is a type of therapy that has been proven helpful for treating a wide range of issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illnesses.

Many research studies show CBT can significantly improve quality of life and daily functioning. In some cases, CBT has been found to be just as helpful, or even more effective, than other forms of therapy or psychiatric medications.

CBT treatment often involves ways to change your thinking patterns, which can involve

  • Learning to recognize and reevaluate your thinking distortions

  • Obtaining a better understanding of your behavior

  • Using specific skills to cope with challenging situations and learning how to grow in confidence

  • Facing fears instead of trying to avoid them

  • Role-play to prepare for complex interactions

  • Learning how to relax the body and mind

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

MBCT, or group therapy, is a therapy that combines aspects of CBT and mindfulness practices. It was designed as a way to avoid relapses into depressive episodes, and most evidence about its effectiveness focuses on its use with depression. However, researchers have also found MBCT helpful for other mental health concerns, including anxiety and substance use issues.

This therapy is usually delivered as a weekly group treatment program that spans eight weeks. Each session is about two hours, and participants receive homework. Generally, it involves practicing mindfulness meditation and listening to audio recordings. Participants are also introduced to a three-minute breathing technique that can help in everyday life.


How does stress directly impact emotional regulation?

Stress can have a significant psychological impact, which might manifest as irritability, aggression, a sense of losing control, insomnia, sadness, tiredness, and an inability to concentrate or remember things. If this stress persists, it can lead to other issues such as depression, anxiety, or burnout.

Are there any recommended resources or books to better understand and practice emotional regulation?

  • Interoception and Regulation, by Emma Goodall and Charlotte Brownlow

  • Emotion Regulation in Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Robert L. Leahy, PhD

How does neurodivergence affect emotional regulation?

People with neurodiverse traits may struggle to recognize and respond to emotions. This can cause their emotions to swing from one extreme to another.

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