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Emotional regulation is the study of how individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they are expressed. Learning to manage our emotions leads to greater well-being, mood improvement, and increased attention. Developing this component of emotional intelligence will magnify your success in all aspects of your life.
1. Name it
Larry David from Seinfeld and Curb your Enthusiasm has a great quote, “If you tell the truth about how you’re feeling, it becomes funny.” This quote exemplifies the emotion regulation technique of how labeling your emotions can diminish its intensity and power over your behavioral response.
Dr. Michelle Kraske at the University of California in Los Angeles brought people with a fear of spiders into the lab and gave four groups a different set of instructions when exposed to a giant tarantula. One group was told to describe the feeling of being around the tarantula, “I am scared of the spider.” The second group was asked to think differently about the spider. For example, “The spider can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid.” The third group was instructed to say something unrelated to the spider, and the fourth group was given no instructions at all. All of the participants were brought into the lab a week later and the group that was the most honest with how they were feeling performed the best when asked to get as close to the spider as possible.
Without all of the need to dig into the research and do a fancy experiment, Larry David hit the nail on the head. Being honest with how we are feeling can give us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves for how ridiculous we may have been feeling and dampen the emotion’s intensity.
2. Be kind
One easy way to boost happiness levels is to perform random acts of kindness. Being kind to others takes your focus off yourself and promotes emotional well-being.
Also, being kind just makes life easier. Kindness helps you to let go of anger, forgive others, and makes your day easier when you help instead of blaming others. Kindness gives you an expansive perspective of others that lets you see beyond your biases.
3. Reappraise the situation
This cognitive strategy involves changing one’s interpretation of a situation and its emotional meanings to have more balanced emotions. For example, maybe you are upset that your friend did not text you back right away. You can try to think of reasons as to why they are busy instead of assuming it is because they don’t like you. Maybe they are driving or got tied up at work. Another way that you can re-appraise your situation is by re-interpreting your emotions. The misattribution theory of arousal explains the psychological phenomenon in which people are mistaken as to what is making them feel aroused. For example, if you are feeling jittery and nervous before an interview, you might interpret this as excitement as opposed to anxiety.
4. Don’t avoid negative emotions
A popular technique that a lot of people use to try to gain control over their emotions is emotional suppression, but numerous studies have demonstrated that this is not at all successful. Suppressing emotions can have the opposite effect and actually intensify the experience. Part of being human is to be nervous, scared, and sad. If we avoid these negative feelings, then we miss out on having the whole human experience. Being honest with these emotions give us the strength to move forward, give us insight into ourselves, and connect us with others.
5. Maintain your health
Self-care is one of the easiest ways you can manage your emotions. Getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising helps us to release stress, increase endorphins, and improve overall mood. Insufficient sleep causes a reactive amygdala, the emotional center of the brain making us irritable and more prone to negative emotions.
Taking care of your health is one way you can improve your emotional intelligence. As you start to take care of health, you will see the benefits in how you respond to challenges and start to improve your well-being.
6. Enhance Self-awareness
Self-awareness helps you to decide which emotional strategy to use when faced with daily challenges. One of the ways that self-awareness can enhance your well-being is by noticing your triggers. For example, I am notorious among my friends for getting ‘hangry’ on weekend trips. (In my defense, when you’re in large groups, it’s very hard to wait for everyone to be hungry at the same time). If I start getting irritable, cranky or have a bite to how I respond to others, I know that it’s usually because I’m hungry so now my friends force me to bring snacks on trips.
Be kind to yourself when noticing your triggers because sometimes I have to make the same mistake three times before I eventually learn to change my behavior and that’s okay! If you have a hard time looking at yourself in the mirror accurately, you can ask your friends for honest feedback. Sometimes we are too hard on ourselves, and there’s no problem at all, or we may be blind to what we really need to change.
Rumination is associated with depression and anxiety. It’s when we continuously focus on our problems repeatedly without considering any solutions. We get tied up in the same cycle of thoughts without ever even stepping outside of ourselves to notice it’s happening. One way to overcome repetitive, useless thoughts is to distract yourselves with activities or different tasks. Not everyone, but studies have found that women are more likely to use emotional coping strategies such as rumination while men are more likely to use a distraction to avoid stressors in their life.
You know those days when you get one bad e-mail, and it completely ruins your day, so your thoughts start spiraling out of control? I, too am a victim of bad e-mails or possibly misreading them. One of the ways that I cope with this type of stress is to exercise and most of the time, I end up forgetting why I was upset in the first place. For other people, this may take the form of reading a book, taking a walk, or getting a beer with some friends.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. You will have days when you crush it, and you will have days where you make mistakes. Laugh at yourself and try to find humor in everyday situations. Laughing releases stress and makes everyone around you feel good as well. It automatically changes the situation in your favor.
Another way humor can help you to change your perspective is by watching something funny! I love stand-up comedy, and I have my list of go-to comedians that understand that the struggle is real. Watching funny shows or comedy specials will help you to re-evaluate your problems. I like to think to myself, What would Jim Gaffigan say right now or how would Chris Rock feel about this? It helps you to step outside yourself and give you a different perspective.
Mindfulness has been a buzz word in recent years, and research has blown up on this topic. Mindfulness is a mental state in which one is aware of the present moment without judgment. Meditation has been found to increase mindfulness and has many other mental health benefits that include sharpening our attention to focus and counter habituation, the tendency to stop noticing new information.
According to research, meditation has been found to increase the connectivity of the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. The pre-frontal cortex is in charge of planning, decision making, and personality development while the amygdala is the center of emotional behavior. Strengthening the connectivity between these two regions of the brain gives us greater control over our emotional responses and improves our ability to handle stress.
Making meditation a practice is very difficult, especially since it’s so boring. There are many apps that you can use as a tool to get you started that can guide your mind to a calmer version of you. I recommend Headspace or Simple Habit to get you going. You may not notice the benefits at first, but you will start to notice that as you go throughout your day that your values become more clear to you, your self-awareness will expand, and you have mental room for insight.
The Greater Good Science Center offers tons of research on how to live a good life. Here is a link to read the latest research on what we know about meditation.