What to do when emotions hijack our study goals and lives.
THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY DEB WARREN AT UNE COUNSELLING AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES (UNE CAPS).
Regulating emotions is the ability to modify what we are feeling at any point in time. This differs slightly from another associated skill called distress tolerance, where we “tolerate our distress”, meaning we sit with feelings and do not act to change the feelings in any way. Generally, emotion regulation refers to an ability to reduce the intensity of an emotion (such as anger), but can also mean increasing the intensity of our feelings (such as excitement or joy), or acting in ways to minimise having certain emotional responses.
Being good at regulating your emotions can help to reduce procrastination, where we delay what we know we really need to do; a common experience for students.
Emotion regulation can help with behaviours we may want to reduce, or feelings and experiences we want to change. These include self-harming behaviours, feelings associated with depression or anxiety, motivation, and even reducing emotion-related eating behaviours.
Coupled with this, being confident in our ability to regulate emotions can make emotions far less frightening or daunting. We may then be more likely to process emotional experiences such as grief, rather than pushing it away or squashing it down. We then don’t have the same fear of these experiences taking us over, or of becoming “stuck” in the emotions.
Why do we struggle to regulate our emotions?
Unfortunately, we are not always taught about emotions and may not realise just how important they are. We might think emotion regulation is a complex, difficult process, perhaps because the emotions we experience seem so powerful and overwhelming, and at times they may well be.
But the strategies we use to regulate emotion can be quite simple, and chances are you use many of them already. That said, we don’t often make the strategies conscious and therefore are not aware of what we are using to help. We also may lack the motivation to undertake these strategies at times, either because we don’t feel/think they will help or don’t feel/think we have the time or energy to engage in them.
So how do we regulate emotions?
Emotions are very physical. We feel them strongly in our bodies in all kinds of ways: sickness in the stomach; heart palpitations; pressure in the chest; tingling in arms and legs; fist and jaw clenching; scalp tingling. In fact, there is rarely an area of the body that is not impacted by emotions. It is therefore very much a mind-body experience. This means strategies that involve the mind and body are helpful.
1: Exercise Ok, yes. I can hear the groans already. While exercise doesn’t come easily to many of us, it improves our health and emotional regulation because of hormonal and physical effects on the body. In many years past, the stress we experienced was very physical; the lion or bear wanted us for lunch! Now, however, much of the stress is emotional yet our body still responds to stressors in the same way. We need a physical release as we did when fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Exercise helps by providing this physical release. It gives us endorphins which help us to feel good. It metabolises the adrenalin and cortisol that are a by-product of the stress and emotion. However, it is the endorphins that help most with regulation. Consider a power walk, game of squash, or punching a punching bag, for example, rather than a person!
2: Recognise Feelings When we don’t know what we are feeling, it is difficult to know what to do about this. Having a greater ability to verbalise or understand what we are experiencing, and why we are experiencing this, gives us a chance to decide what to do about it. This understanding or insight often leads to reduced distress because, even though the situation triggering the emotion has not changed, we can explain it to ourselves and others.
3: Social Connection Our friends and family are so important to us. We are such social creatures. Some more extroverted than others, but generally we need others for support, encouragement, and validation. Chatting with friends, family, colleagues and others can help us gain a different perspective, gain further understanding about a situation, and just feel better. The expression “a problem shared is a problem halved” has merit.
4: Do the Opposite When we feel low or anxious we may, for example, want to withdraw. But there is a sense in doing the opposing action to what we may be motivated to do. When we want to procrastinate, for example, we can instead break the task we are avoiding down and do something small towards the goal. When we want to sleep all day, we can encourage ourselves to go outside and stand in the sun, or do a small, untimed walk. The tendency we have as humans is to avoid doing what we know we need to do when we are struggling. We feel we don’t have the energy or the time, yet these strategies are just what we need in order to feel better.
5: Creativity. Being creative helps to engage different parts of our brain. Playing music, painting, drawing, colouring, writing, clay work, or even playing in the mud! These creative strategies could involve processing the source of our emotions, such as journaling our feelings and experiences, or they could be soothing activities in and of themselves.
The above strategy does overlap somewhat with distress tolerance, where we are not seeking to alter the emotional level, but distract ourselves from it. Here are some other strategies to build your emotional resilience.
1: Acceptance Often called “radical acceptance”, acceptance involves acknowledging what we are feeling; that it is ok to have these feelings even if we wish we didn’t. Normalising and validating are part of this process. Quite often when we fight a feeling, it can lead to growth in the emotion. In turn, if we accept the feeling in order for it to “go away”, this is not true acceptance. We accept we are feeling this way, that it is ok and will pass with time, or processing, or regulation when needed.
2: Sensory Strategies When we involve the senses, we involve our bodies and the present. Our senses perceive the here and now. They are not in the past or future as our minds are. “Grounding” strategies may involve things like the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method. In this strategy, we look at working through the 5 senses and prioritise our dominant sense. For most it may be vision, then followed by auditory. So we ask ourselves “What are 5 things I can see?” “What are 4 things I can hear?” and so on as we progress down through the remaining senses. The purpose is to bring our mind to the present, notice what is around us, but also engage the brain in thinking about the sequence of senses and counting what we notice. This leads us to disengage from the thinking that could otherwise escalate what we are feeling. Other sensory strategies include massage, bath, and aromatherapy.
3: Distraction Distraction is popular and is why we procrastinate. So we have to be careful with this one and use it consciously and deliberately when we need to take a break from feelings. This is why I’ve left it until last. It is to be used with caution and awareness. We engage in other activities to avoid the emotion, and at times this is very appropriate. Watching TV, reading books, anything really that engages us enough that we can avoid thinking about what we are feeling or going through. The task needs to be sufficiently engaging so that it takes our attention. This can be difficult to find, especially when emotions are strong. This links back to the section on creativity.
When Regulation Attempts Go Awry
Many factors modify our emotions. All can be engaged in excessively, and some can be harmful. Sleep, for example, is crucial in being able to regulate. When we lack sleep we have less resilience to emotional experiences and less ability to formulate ideas and think outside the square to find a solution. However, we can also sleep too much!
Exercise also is something we can become addicted to. Signs of exercise addiction are similar to those for other addictions: such as feeling unable to take a break from exercise for a particular day; exercising when injured or unwell because unable to stop; and failing to listen to our body and what it needs.
Other addictions such as alcohol, drugs, even food, can come from an inability to regulate emotions and an attempt to find anything that helps! These, obviously, cause long term health problems and further complicate our lives through financial and other impacts.
Self-harming occurs because the pain stimulates the body’s natural endorphins. This can become a way to regulate intense emotions because the endorphins improve how we are feeling. For some, physical pain provides a representation of emotional distress. However, this can lead to addiction and heavy reliance on this strategy, as well as long term physical scarring and, at times, can even lead to serious injury and risk of death. Suicide is generally not the aim of self-injurious behaviors.
These latter strategies are our attempts to cope, but create significant problems that make them overall unhelpful when dealing with emotions.
In conclusion, there are a number of strategies we can use to regulate what we are feeling, and a number can be used in conjunction with each other, therefore having cumulative benefit. When we are feeling particularly distressed, we may need to utilise several support strategies. Giving ourselves permission to engage in these strategies may also be relevant to consider, because people are often harsh with themselves, or expect more from themselves than they would ever expect from others!
UNE students can access free counselling through UNE Student Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They are fully qualified and registered psychologists, offering on-campus appointments and phone/video chat sessions for online students. The service is confidential and free for UNE students.
You can contact them Monday- Friday, 9am-4 pm, on (02) 6773 2897.
For more urgent assistance, UNE offers After Hours Support on weekdays from 4.00pm to 9.00am AEST, weekends and public holidays. Phone 1300 661 927 or text 0488 884 169. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You’re never alone at UNE!