Everyone can experience difficulties managing their emotions or reactions to events in their lives. Several strategies can help, such as deep breathing, sensory grounding, mindfulness, acceptance, and challenging thoughts.

People may suddenly feel anxious, overwhelmed, or unable to manage their emotions when something unexpected happens. This can be quite common and part of human nature. However, if this happens regularly, some tools can help with remaining in control amidst strong emotions.

In some cases, a person may wish to seek help from a specialist. For example, a therapist can help people understand their emotions and how to handle them, especially when challenging situations or events occur.

This article reviews how people may manage their emotions and the importance of self-regulation.

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Self-regulation is the ability to choose how to react to feelings, emotions, and thoughts. People begin to learn how to manage their emotions during childhood through their relationships with caregivers.

People are unable to self-regulate their emotions from birth and rely on caregivers to restore their emotional balance — this process is known as co-regulation.

Adults and adolescents who have grown up in an unsupportive environment during childhood may experience more difficulties managing their emotions and have more issues self-regulating.

Strategies to help someone manage emotions or improve self-regulation include the following techniques:

Breathing techniques can help restore emotional balance. A 2018 systematic review found that deep breathing activates a part of the nervous system — called the parasympathetic nervous system — that helps the body relax and restore its balance.

Box breathing is a technique that people can use to help restore their emotional balance. A person can perform box breathing using the following method:

  1. Inhale slowly for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold the breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling during this time.
  3. Then, slowly exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds.
  4. Hold the breath again for 4 seconds.
  5. Repeat steps 1–3 at least three times. A person may need to attempt this a couple of times before feeling any benefit.

People may find it difficult to stay present in their bodies and remain aware of the environment surrounding them when experiencing intense emotions. Using the five senses can help people remain grounded and regain management of their emotions.

There are several grounding strategies, including:

  • singing
  • splashing cold water on the face
  • humming
  • progressively relaxing muscles

One grounding exercise people can perform in any situation is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. To do this exercise, people can answer the following prompts:

  • five things they can see
  • four things they can touch
  • three things they can hear
  • two things they can smell
  • one thing they can taste

Engaging in mindfulness may help people stop thinking about their worries, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

Several activities can help someone achieve mindfulness and manage emotions, including:

A 2019 study found that practicing meditation for 13 minutes daily for a period of 8 weeks can have several benefits for physical and mental health, including improving emotional self-regulation and mood.

People may find it helpful to challenge irrational thoughts that are causing them emotional distress. When a distressing thought occurs, people can ask themselves questions such as:

  • Has there been a time when this thought is not real or true?
  • Is there any proof to back this thought?
  • Will this matter in a day, week, month, or year?

Emotion acceptance can help people stop labeling their emotions as positive or negative. This approach allows a person to embrace their emotions — without feelings of guilt or shame — rather than suppressing, denying, or attempting to change.

People wanting to practice emotional acceptance may find it helpful to take notes of their feelings in a journal or video recording. Having a record allows an individual to read back or rewatch and reflect on their emotions.

Trained professionals can work with people who have difficulty managing their emotions and introduce strategies to reorganize thoughts, ultimately working to reduce and prevent emotional distress.

People can use the American Psychological Association’s locator tool to help them find a therapist or psychologist.

One technique therapists may use is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It may help people with emotional difficulties to reframe thoughts on life events, providing a newer perspective. This may help someone stop feeling overwhelmed or anxious when something unexpected happens.

Some emotional distress may sometimes be associated with previous trauma a person has experienced, including during childhood. Therapists can help people understand why they experience certain emotions when specific things — also known as triggers — happen.

It is part of human nature to occasionally experience emotional difficulties when something unexpected occurs. However, some people may regularly experience emotional distress and can use several tools to help manage their feelings. These include practicing sensory grounding, deep breathing, mindfulness, challenging thoughts, and emotional acceptance.

Therapists can also help people learn new ways of thinking about their emotions and understand why they feel overwhelmed when certain life events occur.