Lighthouse shining through a storm signifying emotions breaking through life's storm

Emotional Regulation: The Key to Surviving Life’s Emotional Storms

Christy Johnson
March 7, 2024
January 30, 2024

Imagine waking up to a quiet, slow morning. The sun warms your skin and a gentle breeze rustles by. Consider this peaceful scene representative of your ideal emotional state; calm, present, and ready to engage with the world. But as we all know, life isn’t always sunny skies. Storms of stress, disappointment, and overwhelm roll in at times, leaving us feeling like a shipwreck tossed by turbulent waves.

Thankfully, we all have our very own inner floatation device for difficult times, helping us to stay afloat amid the turmoil. Emotional regulation is like the lifevest we can reach for when we are coping with big, difficult emotions like pain, loss, and fear. 

Emotional regulation is not about suppressing feelings or learning to ignore them. Instead, it is about understanding and supporting your emotions. It's about learning how to tune into what you are feeling, and figuring out how to give yourself support during hard times. By understanding and managing your emotions, you can pause, adjust the sails on your emotional ship, and navigate whatever sailing conditions, or life stressors, come your way. 

Understanding Emotional Regulation and Dysregulation

Emotional regulation helps us have the ability to experience and manage our emotions in a healthy and adaptive way. Imagine it like riding the waves of life. When you are emotionally regulated, you are more easily able to navigate highs and lows, staying balanced and in control. 

Emotional dysregulation, on the other hand, is like being caught in a whirlpool. Emotions become intense and overwhelming, like crashing waves that pull you under. You might struggle to calm down, leading to impulsive reactions, withdrawal, or even self-destructive behaviors. Persistent emotional dysregulation can significantly impact your work and personal relationships, your perception of yourself, and your overall wellbeing.

The good news is that we are not at the mercy of the emotional storms of life. Research in neuroscience reveals that we can actively regulate our emotions through nervous system calming practices.

Emotional Regulation and Calming the Nervous System

Think of your brain and nervous system as the weather-monitoring structure within your body. When faced with a threat (real or perceived), the flight-or-fight response kicks in, releasing hormones like cortisol and speeding up your heart rate. 

When the body is in this heightened state, cognition, and social-emotional communication become diminished, as the brain places more emphasis on tasks like regulation and survival. This shift in your brain's energetic focus makes it harder to respond to situations in the most effective way. This is where practices that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s inner calming mechanism, can help. 

So, when you begin to notice stress rising, the first step is to hit the pause button and activate the parasympathetic nervous system with practices like:

  • Deep breathing: Take slow, rhythmic breaths, focusing on your exhale. Imagine it releasing tension and stress.
  • Mindful movement: Gentle yoga, stretching, or even a 5-minute walk can help ground you in the present moment and calm your physical response.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and release different muscle groups, focusing on relaxation spreading through your body.
  • Meditation: This blog post talks about how meditation changes your brain and gives examples of how to practice mindfulness and meditation. 

Tips for Developing Emotional Regulation in Your Day-To-Day Life:

Awareness is Key: You can't manage what you don't notice. Begin to develop mindfulness by observing your emotions without judgment. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What triggered this feeling? How is it affecting my body?

To further develop mindfulness, you may find journaling helpful. Journaling can be a powerful tool for building self-reflection and awareness.

Read more here: Maintaining a Journal for Mental Health: Prompts To Get Started

Choose Your Response: Your feelings are valid, but your reactions are a choice. Once you're aware of your emotions, pause before reacting. Ask yourself: Is this the most effective way to respond? Are there healthier ways to communicate my needs? This pause creates space for conscious choices instead of knee-jerk reactions.

Isolation is the enemy of healing. It can be a very normal human response to withdraw when overwhelmed or hurting, but this response can create isolation and disconnection, exacerbating already difficult feelings. Instead, connect with others, share your experiences, and build a support system that can help you weather the storms.

Progress, not perfection, is the goal. You'll have setbacks, and that's okay, it is expected when learning a new skill. The important thing is to keep practicing and building your emotional regulation muscles.

Be kind to yourself. No one is perfect, and expecting yourself to always be calm and collected will only fuel frustration. Instead, offer yourself compassion and encouragement as you learn and grow.

Build Your Toolbox: Everyone has their own unique set of strategies for managing emotions. Experiment with different techniques like:

  • Visualization: Imagine calming scenes or soothing colors to evoke peaceful feelings.
  • Gratitude practice: Shifting your focus to what you're grateful for can instantly boost your mood and shift your perspective.
  • Creative expression: Write, paint, dance, or sing to express your emotions healthily.

Don't go it alone: Seeking support is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Therapy can provide invaluable tools and support for building your emotional regulation skills.

Final Considerations 

Your feelings aren't just fleeting clouds in the bigger picture of your life. They affect your relationships, decisions, behavior, and ultimately your wellbeing. When you are emotionally dysregulated, it becomes easier to lose patience and snap at loved ones, make impulsive choices, or withdraw or isolate yourself, among other things. Dysregulation can make it so that your emotions overrule your better judgment in the heat of the moment, and this can have lasting impacts across many areas of your life.

Staying emotionally regulated isn’t just a healthy option, it is your responsibility to yourself and those you love. Emotional regulation lets you calm your inner storms, shifting from chaos to clarity. It gives you the power to step up and be the captain of your ship, guiding your feelings instead of letting them control you. When you practice emotional regulation, it means that the people you love and care about can look to you for stability during times of chaos too. 

Just remember that emotional regulation is a skill, not a talent some are born with. It takes time, dedication, and practice. But the rewards are worth it. By gaining mastery in navigating your inner weather, you create a ripple effect of positivity and wellbeing, not just for yourself, but for everyone around you. So, take a deep breath, and set sail on your journey of emotional regulation.

Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson is a licensed master social worker and mental health counselor that specializes in helping individuals increase feelings of safety and security in their bodies to help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and other difficult life challenges. Christy brings to the table a special focus on neuroscience, mindfulness, and real-world practices for emotional regulation and stress management. Christy graduated from New Mexico Highlands University with a Masters degree in social work in 2021 and currently practices as a mental health therapist.