In some individuals, problems with self-regulation result from deficient learning. In others it is due to problems with brain functioning related to heredity, congenital problems, or brain injury. Learning to regulate our emotions and behavior takes practice and some of us are better at it than others. If you suspect you have problems with self-regulation that are causing severe distress or impairing your functioning, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional about how you can make a change.
Thoughts Lead to Feelings
How can it be that two people in the same situation can experience entirely different emotions? Consider this example of how our thoughts, and not necessarily facts, determine our feelings.
Situation: You see someone sitting at a table crying.
Thought: You think they must be sad.
Feeling: You feel concern and sympathy.
Then suppose you look down at the table and see the person is cutting an onion. Would your thoughts and feelings change? As you can see, it was the thought that dictated the initial feeling and not necessarily the reality of the situation.
This example shows that it is possible to regulate your emotions by changing the way you look at a situation. Just like a diamond, every situation has multiple facets. Our feelings about a situation can change depending upon the angle we choose to view it from.
Behavior Leads to Feelings
The way you behave can influence the way you feel. An example of this is exercise. When we engage in exercise, we often feel better afterwards, even when our situation hasn't changed. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can also change our emotions. This is partially due to the physiological changes that occur when we engage in these behaviors and it is also related to the meaning we make of them. Doing something you perceive as good or healthy can make you feel better about yourself.
Another example is the way facial expressions are related to emotions. All over the world, human beings use the same facial muscles when expressing certain emotions. Studies have shown that muscular feedback from a facial expression results in the experience of the emotion it expresses. Give it a try.
Yet another example is related to studies investigating "liking". Researchers found they could increase liking by having individuals participate in activities together that required cooperation toward a goal. Liking can also be decreased by involving people in competition with each other.
These examples show that you can regulate your emotions by engaging in behavior that decreases unpleasant feelings and increases pleasant feelings.
Feelings, Right or Wrong
Because our feelings are influenced by our beliefs and thoughts, we can sometimes be mistaken. However, this doesn't mean our feelings are right or wrong. I like to think of emotions as either adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (problematic).
Emotions are adaptive when they:
- motivate us and help us respond appropriately
- help us make good decisions
- help us remember important things
- warn us of real trouble and identify opportunities
Emotions are maladaptive when:
- They are too intense (out of proportion)
- They last too long
- We are unable to manage or cope with them
- We respond impulsively or destructively based on them
When you take the time to identify and explore your emotions instead of reacting impulsively, you may be able to come up with alternative explanations that make you feel better or healthier ways to cope with the situation.
Emotions Can Be Powerful
Sometimes our emotions are so overwhelming or seem “unacceptable” to us, so we need to protect ourselves from them. This can be a positive thing in moderation. If we felt everything at full intensity all the time, we would be frayed and exhausted. Everyone uses emotional defenses as a way of coping and they are not unhealthy unless they are overused. The following are some common emotional defenses:
- Denial – refusing to acknowledge your feelings
- Identification – assuming the feelings of someone else you admire
- Compensation – making up for unacceptable emotions
- Rationalization – finding excuses for your feelings
- Projection – attributing your own feelings to another person
- Daydreaming – fantasizing to escape unpleasant emotions
- Displacement – taking out emotions on something other than the source
- Reaction Formation – behaving in a manner opposite of the way you are feeling
- Regression – reverting to immature behavior to express emotion
- Sublimation – directing feelings in a useful rather than unacceptable manner
If you feel you may be overusing an emotional defense, it may be helpful to take an honest look at your emotions and practice responding to them in a different way. The key to managing emotions is learning to recognize them, taking the time to explore alternative perspectives and explanations, and coming up with adaptive responses that you can put into action.
If you or someone you love is having trouble managing emotions, talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can give you some tips and techniques for coping with overwhelming feelings. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. You can also call the behavioral health number on the back of your insurance card or visit your insurance company website to get some referral options.
For more information on depression and other mental health issues, please visit my website, http://www.kctherapist.com/.