The Superpower of Emotional Regulation

By Robin Fraser (of North Brisbane Psychologists)

Emotional regulation truly is a psychological superpower!

Growing up I found the X-Men Marvel characters very appealing. What teenager doesn’t know how it is to feel weird, judged or like an outsider? How awesome to escape into a world where I could imagine having superpowers!

Now as an adult, I see that the source of the X-Men superpowers lies in their emotions and what they do with those emotions. For example, Magneto’s and Wolverine’s anger fuels their powers and Storm’s emotions control the weather! Each of these characters have had to go through some really difficult times to learn how to harness their emotions with good intentions.

In much the same way, a lot of us have had the experience of rollercoaster emotions making it difficult to stay balanced in our feelings. People may even tell us we run hot-and-cold, need anger management, or use labels like bipolar, multiple personalities etc. This can leave us feeling ashamed, confused and invalidated, which intensifies our emotional experience. Along with the emotion comes an action urge and if we aren’t mindful we can act in some pretty impulsive and self-defeating ways. Some serious types of impulsive behaviours include violence, self-harm, alcohol or drug abuse, other addictions, violent/angry outbursts, or suicide attempts.

Without good emotional regulation, what can happen? Here’s a scenario: You’re driving in heavy traffic feeling stressed out when suddenly someone cuts you off. This makes you feel pretty enraged. The action urge may be to race in front of the other driver, climb out of your car, and swear and scream at them. Proper road rage! Somebody calls the police and before you know it, you’re in jail for the night – a proper time out! The problem is, although you might feel better in the moment of venting the anger, down the line it leads to more problems; the impulsive action has caused more problems than you had in the beginning.

If you are an internaliser rather than an externaliser, then your pent-up rage and hurt could result in other self-sabotaging behaviours such as self-harm, over-eating, drinking too much, taking drugs, or suicidal thoughts.

Part of being an emotionally intelligent person is learning to manage feelings. In the mental health world, this is called emotional regulation, or affect regulation. Most of the time it’s about learning to implement a pause between feelings and actions. The late psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, stated that “between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and freedom”.

Some basic tips that may assist you in implementing a mindful pause:

  1. Realise that it’s normal to have emotions and that intense emotions don’t make you a bad person. Just being willing to accept your current emotions instead of wishing them away or changing them is 80% of the battle won.
  2. Consider your emotions as like waves on the sea: From far away we can see the wave/emotion coming closer; the wave peaks as it gets to the shore and crashes; thereafter it goes back to being calm. This is like our emotions too; if we can sit with them for a bit and not act immediately, we learn to surf the wave and before we know it, the emotion has subsided.
  3. Work on developing Mindfulness: Practicing and developing the skill of being present on purpose is essential to realising when your emotions are getting the better of you; taking that step back to pause, breath and reflect on your experience is something we need to practice. And you know what? Even the best, most experienced Mindfulness practitioners need to practice! Download some free Mindfulness apps (Headspace, CALM, and 10% Happier are some we suggest) on your smartphone to learn and develop skills.
  4. Remember the acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired): We are most vulnerable to acting on unhelpful emotions when we are simultaneously experiencing one of these feelings. So check in with yourself frequently and see what you need.
  5. Finally, take a patient and kind perspective on yourself: A balanced view might be to acknowledge you are not where you need to be and there is a lot of work still to be done, but also to thankfully remember that you’re not where you used to be either!

Emotional regulation is a difficult skill to master for all of us. It is definitely a skill nurtured in psychotherapy. So if you think your emotions cause you to behave in impulsive ways, we at North Brisbane Psychologists can offer some assistance. Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, or DBT, is an evidence-based form of treatment we could use to compassionately help you learn these essential tools in order to build an effective life that is worth living.