How to Practice Emotional Regulation: 5 Exercises to Help You Stay in Control

Understanding how to exercise some level of control over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a given moment is crucial.

by Matt Schneiderman
Originally Published: 

Emotional regulation, also known as emotional self-regulation, is the practice of exercising some level of control over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a given moment. Ideally, that means having the peace of mind to resist doing or saying something that will worsen your situation and that you’ll likely regret, like screaming at your kid in the middle of a Target or getting pouty after your team loses and remaining grumpy for the rest of the day.

In short, emotional regulation is a crucial skills for parents. The case for training or fine-tuning yours is simple: The world is full of stressors, from those brought on by COVID to the daily ones you face down. When parents can keep their emotions in check — read: feel them and interrogate them, but also not let them run rampant — everyone is happier and healthier.

Kids especially. One of the most crucial lessons for kids to learn is how to understand and deal with their emotions. An important task of all parents, then, is to show kids how to talk about, understand, and deal with everything from anger to sadness. Parents can only model the correct behavior when they take the proper steps.

“Dads can help their kids by having a healthier emotional profile, and talking about and modeling emotions for their kids,” says Dr. James Gross, Director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory and a leading expert in emotion regulation.

So how can you improve your emotional regulation to, say, keep your anger in check or your fear from defining how you act on a daily basis? Here, Gross, walks us through how to stay in control.

The Process Model of Emotional Regulation

Our ability to control our emotions is neither total nor non-existent. It is somewhere in between.

“Emotions are helpful or harmful in a given context,” Gross says. “There’s an idea that emotions cannot be controlled, that they are what they are — or that they should always be controlled. Neither idea is helpful.”

If we let our emotions control us, they do just that: angry, our hearts race and there are strong changes in our breathing. Too little — if we clamp down on emotions as they arise — can lead to worsened mental and physical health.

“Suppression, which is often a go-to strategy for men, is mostly bad news,” he adds. In studies, people suppressing their emotions do poorly on memory tests, or worse. “Long-term, suppression leads to cardiovascular and mental health problems.”

So how do you find your in-between? First, by becoming aware of how emotions manifest and coming up with strategies to keep on top of them. Fortunately for us, Gross has developed just these strategies.

How to Sharpen Your Emotional Regulation Skills

There are five factors that go into emotions, per Gross — five areas that, when you give attention to them, affect your emotions.

“Think of it like putting your thumb on the scale at each different point in the emotion generative process,” Gross says. “Adjust one or more of the points to change emotions where they get generated. No one point is ideally suited for all situations, but there are some strategies that are generally more helpful than others.”

The processes are ordered based on their closeness to the situation — situation selection, situational modification, attention deployment, and cognitive change being preemptive (or antecedent-based) strategies, and response modulation being the sole response-focused strategy.

1. Situation selection

What is it? Situation selection is avoiding people, places, and things that cause you to experience unhelpful or harmful emotions. “If being around certain people stresses you out, try not to be around them,” Gross says. “As much as you can, pick the situations you’re in based on how your emotions are going to be and what your emotion goal is — for instance, your goal of not showing your anger in a certain way. Situation selection is putting yourself into or getting yourself out of situations in advance, building your day to maximize the chance you’ll have the positive emotions you want to have and minimizing the ones you don’t want to have.”

Example: Consider your potential stress levels before doing something fun with yours kids. “If you’re thinking about going to beach but it’s a long drive and there’s traffic, versus the park or zoo which is not a long drive,” Gross says, “and if they’re about even as to how fun it’ll be for the kids, pick the option in which you don’t drive.”

2. Situation modification

What is it? When you’re in situations not of your choosing, change something. “If you’re in a situation you can’t pick — say, you’re stuck in the house due a pandemic — then modify the situation,” Gross says. “You modify the situation so it’s more likely that you’ll have or not have certain emotions.”

Example: When stay-at-home orders are in effect, and your kids are in each others’ faces and getting on each others’ nerves, separate them.

3. Attention deployment

What is it? When a situation is unavoidable and seemingly unchangeable, you can still rein in your emotions by changing your attention. “Attention is a critical gateway to emotion,” Gross says. “Change your attention and you change your emotion. Attention is a vehicle for achieving your emotional regulation goals — shifting towards or away from one aspect of the situation.”

Example: When you’re stressed about work, focus intently on what you child is saying or doing to help dissipate your upset.

4. Cognitive change

What is it? Similar to attention deployment, cognitive change is a shift in what you’re thinking about. But for this strategy, you’re thinking differently about the situation itself. “It matters how you think about a situation,” Gross say. “If you change your thinking, you change your emotion. There’s power in thinking differently about a situation you’re paying attention to. It really affects your emotions. When people use reappraisal, they feel better, they look better, their physiology gets calmer, they’re cognitively attuned to the situation, and people like them better.”

Example: When your child is whining, think about how dislocated your child must be by the pandemic, rather than thinking that your child is trying to annoy you.

5. Response modulation

What is it? Response modulation is the in-the-moment strategy for regulation your emotional state — what you do when you’ve started to feel your heat rise, for instance. “It’s the idea that you are trying to change the output of your emotions,” Gross says. Suppression is a response modulation, albeit a potentially harmful one.

Example: Breathing deeply.

Practicing these strategies is exactly that — a practice. Clarify your emotion goals, use what works for you, practice over time, take note when you see positive changes, and you’ll get better at it. What’s more, you’re demonstrating healthy emotional practices your kids can use.

“When you practice as a parent, you’re modeling to your kids this adaptive form of emotion regulation, how to think about difficult situations, and helping them with their interactions,” Gross says. “When they’re discussing a situation with you, listen to them, talk about why their friend might have said something negative, help them think about it in a way that makes them feel better.”

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