How Do you Emotionally Self-Regulate to Handle Life?

When feeling emotionally triggered or activated, we all have developed ways to ‘feel better’.  For some, that is get back into our self – be back in our bodies or get to a calmer state. This is called emotional regulation – where we attempt to bring ourselves back into the present moment, into our emotional windows of tolerance.

Have you ever really thought about how you emotionally self-regulate? How do you self-soothe or get back to the present moment? Are you able to bring yourself back into your emotional window of tolerance – where you can think and feel at the same time?

Everyone attempts to feel better or at least differently at times – to self-regulate. Do your skills work for you? Do you feel better, safer, calmer when you use them? Do you wonder how these skills are learned or created, and how we can improve upon them?

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage emotions, including re-regulating after an emotionally dysregulating experience, like anxiety, fear, or sadness. Regulating considers thoughts, behaviors, and impulses in response to different situations and experiences. People attempt to regulate in adaptive and maladaptive ways. People can attempt to regulate by themselves – using strategies like alcohol or substances, self-harm, exercise or food, or more adaptively – through meditation, self-talk, or with others – talking to a trusted friend or asking someone for help.

Healthy emotional self-regulation involves noticing yourself, being aware of your own feelings and needs and finding ways to cope – ways that keep you safe, and don’t negatively affect overall well-being and relationships. Healthy emotional regulation includes the ability to think and feel simultaneously. (In a state of emotional dysregulation, there is likely too much feeling or even too much thinking going on – just not a balance!)

Have you ever thought about how you learned to regulate emotions? How your coping skills and abilities to regulate started in your childhood experiences and relationships? Did you have role models for healthy emotional self-regulation? Did you learn to use healthy mechanisms? Less-healthy ones? Or harmful ones?

Are you able to see your current attempts to emotionally self-regulate? Do you like the tools you use? 

Everyone attempts to emotionally regulate all day, every day. It is something we do in little and big ways all the time. We must emotionally regulate when we are hungry, tired, excited, etc. Emotional regulation is coping – how do we regulate or cope with life, in a way that allows us to keep living?

How emotional regulation is learned. 

Emotional regulation skills are learned from the earliest days as a baby, and throughout childhood. What if a baby cries and somebody picks them up and talks sweetly to them – or if they are just left to cry? What if a child falls and scrapes their knee, and somebody attends to and comforts them? Or if they are left or told to suck it up? 

When someone consistently attends to your needs and feelings, and teaches you that you are not alone, you learn from a young age that you can ride the wave of emotions or tolerate these harder feelings of discomfort because you are not alone and will be ok.

You may have someone validating your feelings:

“Oh my goodness, I see you’re crying, are you ok? I am here with you!”

You may see healthy emotional regulation modeled for you. For example, if you see your parents upset and they share that although they are upset, they are also ok. They share what they are feeling (age appropriately), educate you on what’s happening inside for them, what they are doing about it, and how it’s going to resolve.

“Mommy is feeling frustrated right now. I wish things were moving faster and they are not. I’m going to take deep breaths and notice we are all ok right now and that will help to calm me (my nervous system) down. I’ll feel okay in a few minutes.”

You may also experience repair. If dad yelled at you because he was feeling angry, he would apologize.

“I was feeling upset, and I yelled at you. It wasn’t your fault, and I’m sorry.”

These are ideas of how healthy emotional regulation is taught throughout childhood. This is also an example of what secure attachment looks like – learning that your parents and caregivers are there for you in a safe and stable way. Children learn how emotional regulation works, initially from others co-regulating and then experimenting with self-regulating.

Co-regulation is a process of managing emotions and behaviors with another person. It can involve providing emotional support, strengthening interpersonal connections, and helping people navigate their feelings in a relationship.

If someone grows up with secure attachment, they learn that something can feel hard and scary, AND they will be okay. This makes for a large window of tolerance, where you can withstand discomfort because you know you can navigate through the hard times. You have already done it before!  You have support!

A securely attached child learns: It is scary AND I know I’m going to be okay.

What happens if you aren’t raised with secure attachment?

Complex trauma survivors aren’t raised with secure attachment.

They aren’t comforted during difficult times. Exactly the opposite; they were hurt or abused by those who were supposed to keep them safe.

Their feelings aren’t validated. Instead, they may have been told their feelings didn’t matter or that their feelings caused the abuse.

They are gaslit – told narratives that what they’re thinking or feeling is crazy.

They don’t see healthy role modeling.

In situations where a parent is abusive and dismisses a child’s feelings, it can be incredibly confusing for the child. Despite a child’s innate understanding that abuse is wrong, children whose experiences are denied — or for which they are blamed — struggle to reconcile their feelings with what their parent is saying or doing. As a result, they often become unable to effectively process their emotions, and their self-trust erodes due to persistent invalidation of their reality.

A survivor of complex trauma is not taught how to healthily manage feelings, navigate difficult times, or trust themselves or others.

Attachment for these children can look like disorganized attachment, insecure or avoidant attachment. These children learn: It is scary and I’m NOT going to be okay.

Learning emotional regulation doesn’t stop with childhood.

The need for emotional regulation continues throughout life – including adolescence and beyond into adulthood.

Without the attributes of secure attachment, an adolescent will learn to self-regulate however they can. They will find coping mechanisms to help them feel less scared, less confused, less overwhelmed. And often these coping mechanisms are maladaptive — alcohol or drugs, self-harm, food restriction or binge eating, dissociation, or acting out the behaviors that may ultimately in adulthood be diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder – when really what is happening is attempts at survival and regulation.

Like Dan Siegel discusses in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, teenagers must grapple with a still-developing brain and heightened impulsivity while developing strategies to manage it. A supportive family environment, with open communication and connection, can play a continued role in fostering healthy emotional regulation skills. A teen might learn to regulate their emotions through getting together with a friend, moving their body, listening to music, or creating art. 

The self-regulation skills we learned come with us into adulthood.

A trauma survivor without secure attachment may have a narrow window of tolerance – an inability to healthily emotionally regulate, and understandably so. Their childhood taught them that they were not safe, that people couldn’t be trusted, and that they couldn’t trust themselves.

This interferes with their ability to slow down, notice themselves and their needs and believe those needs to be important, so they struggle with how to navigate feelings and relationships healthily. This often leads them to continue to try to survive, which includes attempts to self-regulate with maladaptive coping mechanisms — so that they can feel differently or less in order to feel less badly.

It’s about just trying to survive and feel less badly.

The regulation or coping methods you utilize are based on what tools you have inside your toolbox. The tools you learned might be connection and movement, to turn to others for help or support, or they might be drugs and alcohol, to tune out. No matter what attachment style you were raised with, what coping strategies you are currently using, or where you are in your healing journey, it’s always possible to add more tools in your self-regulation toolbox! Especially ones that might help you caretake yourself now!

Can you notice your coping strategies and get curious about them?

As a trauma survivor, healthy emotional regulation can be learned, and your window of emotional tolerance can be expanded. The first step is recognizing how you self-regulate now, and if those skills are working well for you:

  • How do you manage difficult emotions?
  • What are your go-to methods for getting through tough times?
  • How do you respond to positive experiences, such as receiving compliments?
  • What actions do you take when you’re not feeling anything at all?

It’s normal for people to self-regulate emotions in different ways. Many healthy options exist and are safe, when you are living a safe and stable life now, such as reaching out to a friend, taking a walk, or attending a class. Many less-healthy options exist, too.

Do you feel better after using your tools to emotionally regulate, or are they making you feel worse now or in the long term?

If you can compassionately notice what’s happening in your life and what you are using or attempting to do to feel better, different, or less badly, then you can expand the toolbox of emotional regulation, and your window of tolerance —- and get support if it’s needed.

If you are ready to explore the possibility of support and change through therapy, please reach out.

P.S. Another reason why kids are having trouble regulating their emotions? Jonathan Haidt talks about how the “great rewiring of childhood” has interfered with children’s social and neurological development in his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. We’ll talk more about that soon!

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