What is emotional regulation and how does it work?
We are constantly exposed to a wide range of stimuli that triggers either negative or positive emotional responses which - if we pay attention - we can feel in our bodies. Scientists call them "somatic markers". They can feel pleasant and joyful, like a warm gush of water flowing through our bodies or very painful. Intense emotional pain is acknowledged to be as excruciating as physical pain. Eastern philosophies even talk about "the pain body" when someone is in constant emotional pain due to stress, trauma and unhelpful belief systems.
Even though we aren’t normally consciously aware of our emotions, our responses to stimuli govern our behavior every single day. Without healthy ways to cope with our emotions, life activities such as work, school, friendships and parenting can become difficult and overwhelming.
We are all controlled by powerful emotions at times, but the ability to balance and regulate our emotions is critical to mental health, social interactions and success in school, work and personal relationships. People who learn healthy, socially acceptable strategies in childhood and adolescence develop confidence in their ability to cope by relying on a variety of tools and problem solving skills to regulate emotions.
Learning to regulate emotions begins in infancy
It may seem unlikely that a young child is capable of emotional regulation, but learning actually begins from day one of our existence. For example, a baby cries when she is hungry or uncomfortable. When a parent responds appropriately by soothing the child and attending to her needs, she learns that she is safe and that her needs will be met. If the parent is absent or becomes angry, the child learns to be stressed, abandoned and fearful. Learning, either positively or negatively, continues to develop throughout childhood.
Lack of emotional regulation in adolescence often leads to substance abuse and addiction
Emotional regulation skills become more sophisticated in adolescence. Yet, teens that don’t develop proper skills in childhood often learn harmful ways of coping with out-of-control emotions. They may seek solace in drugs and alcohol, which helps them avoid difficult emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, jealousy or fear. Unfortunately, the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed and emotional maturity is often delayed or stunted by drug taking.
Problems with emotional regulation, including inappropriate suppression of emotions, often lead to a host of problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, anger problems, mood swings, aggressive behavior and addiction that may require drug and alcohol treatment or rehab down the road.
Is it ever too late to learn emotional regulation?
Of course, learning emotional regulation is easier when it occurs naturally in childhood, modeled by mature parents and teachers. Learning to cope with unhealthy, destructive emotions becomes more challenging in adolescence and adulthood. However, with practice, it’s possible to learn how to navigate complex feelings and emotions. Tools are meditation, self-awareness skills, body awareness exercises, journaling, self-reflection, breathing techniques, mindfulness based stress reduction and of course, a whole range ofpsychotherapeutic methods such as talk therapy, EMDR, hypnotherapy, metacognitive training, guided imagery among many others. All of these should only be applied by skilled and qualified therapists. The first step in all approaches is to identify and feel all emotions, to “label” them and thus reduce and finally remove avoidant strategies. For many people this has proven to be a very liberating and “unburdening” experience with a profound impact on their lives. Many people see no more need to use drugs or alcohol to numb emotions but to see them as integral part of being – imperfectly – human and alive.