Emotional self-regulation refers to a person’s ability to manage their emotions and impulses. It is an important part of overall mental and physical well-being.
Emotional self-regulation is a skill that people learn and develop throughout childhood and adolescence and into adulthood.
Feeling strong emotions is healthy. Learning how to process emotions and respond with appropriate behavior is essential to a person’s well-being. Lacking emotional self-regulation can perpetuate negative emotions. It can also have social repercussions, such as damaging relationships with others.
This article will explore emotional self-regulation and look at how it develops, why it is important, and when to seek help.
When people feel strong emotions, such as anger, frustration, or anxiety, they experience physical and mental responses.
In some cases, the body increases the production of stress hormones, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and breathing rate.
People may feel short-tempered, have outbursts, have mood swings, or experience negative emotions.
Emotional self-regulation is the learned skill of applying conscious thought to events that prompt strong emotions. When people engage in it, they adapt their behavior in the following ways:
- They notice the increase in emotional response.
- They consider the consequences of any response.
- They choose responses that move toward a positive outcome or goal, despite possibly feeling negative emotions.
If a person lacks emotional self-regulation skills, they may express this by:
- overreacting to situations
- having emotional outbursts and being quick to react
- experiencing negative emotions that last a long time
- having mood swings
Self-regulation is an important part of child and adolescent development, and research shows that being able to regulate emotions has a positive effect on a person’s well-being.
Children develop emotional self-regulation under the guidance of caregivers and peers.
Very young children find it difficult to deal with their emotions. For example, they may throw tantrums when things do not go their way. If adults help them name their feelings and rationalize with them, children gradually learn to appraise situations by themselves and make more reasonable behavior choices.
A person can learn self-regulation skills, but they must practice regularly for the skills to become second nature. For young people with developmental delays, intervention and coaching can help them develop self-regulation skills.
Some adults also have difficulties self-regulating their emotions. Therapy can be a valuable way to improve self-awareness, leading to better emotion regulation.
Certain daily practices can help a person stay in control of their emotions, including:
It is normal for people to find themselves unable to manage their emotions from time to time. However, for some people, emotions are continually draining and overpowering, leading to unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance misuse or self-injury.
Emotional dysregulation happens when a person interprets emotions or events in a way that makes them feel overwhelmed. They may perceive a situation in a way that does not reflect reality, which triggers a very real set of feelings.
Emotions begin to cascade, and the natural response is to do whatever it takes to calm the negative feelings. In many cases, that leads to negative or self-destructive behaviors.
This cycle can repeat over time until a person makes a concerted effort to break it with self-regulating thoughts and behaviors.
People deal with emotions in varied ways. Some of these, such as substance misuse, overwork, and angry outbursts, are unhealthy.
A 2016 study compared three emotional self-regulation strategies, which are detailed below.
This happens when a person chooses to step back from an emotionally triggering situation and reframe it in a way that changes its emotional impact.
Cognitive reappraisal happens before a person becomes charged with emotion. In the study, people who used this strategy experienced more positive emotions than those who did not.
This is the practice of deliberately paying attention to one’s thoughts and feelings and recognizing and accepting them. Practicing mindfulness regularly can change how a person relates and responds to their feelings and emotions. In the study, people who practiced mindfulness showed fewer negative emotions than those who did not.
This strategy involves a person keeping their emotions to themselves and being careful not to express them. They may do this to avoid feeling judged or experiencing other social repercussions.
In the study, people who used emotion suppression experienced fewer positive and more negative emotions than those who did not, suggesting it is not a healthy emotional self-regulation strategy. Keeping emotions in, while still feeling their impact inwardly, can lead to more pain in the long term.
If a person feels they have an unhealthy response to their emotions or are engaging in self-destructive behavior, they can seek the help of a doctor in the first instance. A doctor can refer them to a therapist or other professional who is trained to help people develop self-awareness and emotion regulation.
Emotional self-regulation is a learned skill that requires time, practice, and effort. For young people with learning disabilities, it may require even more focus and attention.
To improve emotional self-regulation, a person can focus on:
- taking care of physical needs by staying rested, fed, hydrated, and physically fit
- participating in activities that provide a sense of achievement and growth
- remembering that changing thoughts is easier than changing feelings
Emotional self-regulation is a cognitive skill that develops throughout childhood into adolescence and beyond.
Through modeling from caregivers and peers, people learn to bring conscious thought to handling their emotions. A person with good emotional self-regulation can acknowledge a strong emotion and choose a way to respond that has the least negative consequences.
Lacking emotional self-regulation skills can lead to negative emotions, socially unacceptable behavior choices, and self-destructive behavior.
Adolescents and adults with poor emotion regulation can improve their skills through effort, practice, and repetition. Research has concluded that cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness are two useful strategies for emotional self-regulation.