Emotion Regulation: Definition + 21 Strategies to Manage Emotions
What is emotion regulation? What can you do to make your emotions more manageable? Here are science-based, high-impact emotion regulation strategies you can start using today.
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What is emotion regulation?
Emotion regulation is defined as the ability to affect one's own emotional state. It can involve either increasing positive emotion, decreasing negative emotion, or both. Generally it involves changing your thoughts or behaviors, sometimes in conscious and sometimes in unconscious ways. For example, you can focus on the silver linings or remove yourself from a difficult situation to regulate your emotions. When you regulate your emotions with healthy strategies, you feel better and can more quickly recover from stressful experiences.
Note. I talk about how to apply many of these strategies to the modern cell-phone addicted world in my book, Outsmart Your Smartphone.
Video: What is emotion regulation?
Is emotion regulation the same as emotion control?
Controlling our emotions is one way to regulate, manage, or change emotions. But it is not the only way. Accepting our emotions or doing something non-emotional are other ways to change our emotions without directly controlling them. In fact, emotional control may not always work and may not always be beneficial. For example, certain types of emotional control such as suppression—or hiding your feelings—can actually have long term negative impacts on your well-being .
What is the impact of emotion regulation?
Generally, emotion regulation strategies make you feel better in the short term. But not all emotion regulation strategies also make you feel better in the longer term. For example, drinking alcohol is a pretty effective short-term emotion regulation strategy—it makes us feel good. But it often makes us feel worse in the long term, especially if we are using it to manage emotions that we can't effectively manage with healthier strategies.
This is just a bit of why learning to effectively regulate your emotions with healthy strategies is so important. Read on to learn more about the many types of healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation strategies.
Healthy Emotion Regulation Strategies:
Healthy emotion regulation strategies are strategies that help us feel better in the moment but don't have negative long-term effects. They usually help us feel better now and later.
Self-awareness is sometimes considered an emotion regulation strategy in itself. More often, it is thought of as a useful, but not necessary, part of the emotion regulation process. For example, when we know we have an emotion to regulate, awareness makes it easier for us to engage in healthy emotion regulation.
If we are not self-aware or not aware of our emotions, we may still engage in emotion regulation. However, we may do so in ways that don't work very well (for example maybe we yell at people when we're sad, they get mad at us, and then we feel sadder). Or we may do so unconsciously--Why did we get so drunk last night? Oh ya, we were feeling really bad about a workplace conflict.
Emotional acceptance is the ability to experience your emotions without judging them or having meta-emotional (secondary) thoughts or emotions about your initial emotion. There is some debate in the field about whether acceptance is even an emotion regulation strategy. In some ways, it's the lack of regulation. You just let your emotions be as they are and they spontaneously dissipate on their own.
I would argue that acceptance is indeed emotion regulation because just accepting emotions is not our natural mode of operating. Because of social influences, cultural influences, and upbringing, we automatically judge emotions—especially emotions like anger and sadness. Women tend to judge themselves more for feeling anger; men tend to judge themselves more for feeling sadness. For these reasons, acceptance takes conscious effort for most of us. We have to actively let go and accept.
Mindfulness is thought to be the combination of awareness and acceptance. Mindfulness can be an effective way to regulate emotions, particularly to induce calm and relaxation. Mindfulness is super popular these days and has been shown to have a positive impact on many aspects of well-being. However, mindfulness is a difficult skill to learn and doesn't appear to work well for everyone. For example, people who struggle with rumination should use caution when doing mindfulness and seek the support of an expert.
4. Emotional memory
Memorizing and recalling positive words forces your brain to activate the regions associated with these words. So memorizing positive words can help strengthen the brain regions responsible for positive concepts, memories, and ideas. As a result, these concepts may be more accessible in your day-to-day life. Overall, you may train you brain to have slightly more positive emotions or when it comes time to regulate your emotions in response to something negative, you brain may be more effective at doing so.
5. Emotional attention
Another way to change how we experience emotion is to re-direct our attention towards the positive. If we're focusing on the bad things in a situation, we can shift to instead focusing on something else or paying attention to the less threatening parts. Research shows that our attention can, in fact, be trained. One study trained participants to focus on neutral instead of threatening faces in a computerized task, and this training resulting in significant reductions in social anxiety .
6. Positive reappraisal
The distinctions between positive and negative reappraisal are not entirely clear from the research, but generally positive reappraisal is thought to involve cognitively reframing an experience as more positive. For example, let’s say that you lost your job. A positive reappraisal might be that this situation will push you forward and help you begin building that business you always wanted to start.
Other definitions of positive reappraisal include reframing an event in ways that increase positive emotion. I know the distinction is subtle, but this definition focuses on the outcome of the reappraisal being positive rather than the focusing on positive information.
7. Negative reappraisal
Negative reappraisal is thought to involve cognitively reframing an experience as less negative. For example, if you lost your job, a negative reappraisal might be: at least you don't have to deal with your jerk boss anymore. Rather than focusing on the good in the situation, you focusing on what's "less bad".
Like positive reappraisal, negative reappraisal is sometimes defined more in terms of emotional outcome. Negative reappraisal, then, would be defined as reframing an event in ways that decrease negative emotion. Don't worry too much about these definitions though, as both positive and negative reappraisal tend to increase positive emotion and decrease negative emotion simultaneously.
Another way to regulate your emotions is to look at your situation as if you were “a fly on the wall” or as if you were someone else who is witnessing your situation from afar. These days, we are so immersed in our experiences—what we feel, what we think, even what we had for dinner. But it turns out that emotionally distancing yourself from your experience and looking at it from an outsider’s perspective helps you from getting stuck in your negative emotions. As a result, you don’t feel quite as bad, even when you do feel bad .
9. Temporal distancing
In addition to shifting to another person’s perspective, we can shift to another time perspective by looking at our situation from another point in time. This technique helps dampen our emotions because we see that our negative emotions are not permanent, so we feel less afraid of them . Just remember, this too shall pass.
10. Positive imagination
You probably already know that when you think about something bad happening, you start to feel all sorts of negative emotions as if that bad thing already happened. Just the thought of your romantic partner leaving you or losing your job might lead to intense anxiety, anger, or sadness. Our brains act as if those thoughts are real. So thinking about negative scenarios that haven’t even happened is horrible for our well-being.
But on the bright side, our brains do the exact same thing if we imagine positive scenarios. By imagining all the positive things that could happen in our future, we can create all the positive emotions that would arise in those situations. For example, maybe you imagine your boss finally praising you for something you did well, maybe you imagine spending all afternoon at an amusement park with your family, or maybe you imagine flying around town on a purple dragon. Almost magically, you create positive emotions out of thin air.
Savoring is all about mentally holding on to the positive emotions we get in our day-to-day lives. Too often we let the good moments and positive emotions pass by without truly savoring or celebrating them. When we savor these moments, we pause and attempt to fully experience the positive emotions that have arisen in that moment, and as a result, we up-regulate our positive emotions, creating longer-lasting positive experiences .
When we capitalize on positive events by sharing them with others, we extend our positive emotions, feel closer to others, and they feel closer to us. So to extend a positive moment even longer, show it, tell it, or share it with others right away. You could send a personal message to someone. You might call or text a friend or talk to the people around you about what you’re feeling. Just be sure when that you’re sharing your emotions and not humble bragging.
Gratitude is simple thankfulness. When we express gratitude, we not only make ourselves feel good, we make others feel good too. Gratitude appears to increase positive emotions in both the short and longer term by improving the quality of our relationships. Here are some gratitude activities: Gratitude List, Gratitude Note.
14. Growth mindset
The belief that you can grow and improve, often referred to as growth mindset, has a surprisingly big impact on your ability to reach your goals. In fact, the more you believe that you can improve a skill, the more likely it is that you actually will improve that skill.
Although growth mindset is often not thought of as an emotion regulation strategy, its impact on emotion suggests it is at least an important part of the emotion regulation process. How? Well, it turns out that believing that you can change your emotions makes it more likely that you will. So if you have a growth mindset for emotion, you put yourself in a frame of mind where all other emotion regulation strategies are likely to be more effective .
15. Opposite action
Opposite action is an emotion regulation strategy used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. When we're feeling a certain way, we tend to act in ways that are congruent with those feelings. By acting in the opposite way we can begin to shift our mood to the opposite as well.
Video: Opposite action
Distraction can be a healthy emotion regulation strategy when used properly. There are all kinds of unhealthy ways to distract ourselves (we'll talk about these more below). But some types of distraction can be beneficial. One good example is exercise. I we're feeling sad or upset, exercise is a good distraction that helps us feel better in the short term and longer term. Another good distraction when we're feeling anxious is to take a cold shower or swim, as this helps activate our parasympathetic, rest and digest system. So distraction can be used effectively, as long as it's done thoughtfully.
Unhealthy Emotion Regulation Strategies
Unhealthy emotion regulation strategies are strategies that may help us feel better in the moment (or we think they will) but tend to have negative long-term effects. They usually help us feel better now but these effects don't last and often we feel even worse later because we have not addressed the emotions properly.
Rumination is when we think over something again and again. Rumination and worry are often used to help us regulate or manage our emotions. We think—incorrectly—that thinking or worrying about our issues will help us solve them. That's why this is an ineffective emotion regulation strategy. It actually doesn't help reduce our emotions in the short term or longer term.
2. Substance use
Drug and alcohol use is not always an emotion regulation strategy. Sometimes, we consume these substances as part of socializing or ritual. But more often than we realize, these substances are used to increase positive emotions--Whoohoo, let's party!—or to decrease negative emotions--That day sucked; I just need a drink!
When we use substances as emotion regulation tools, we actually do ourselves more harm than good. Because we aren't learning other ways to increase positive emotions or decrease negative emotions, we can become reliant on these substances to regulate our emotions for us. And that's a dangerous game.
Non-suicidal self harm is actually considered to be a maladaptive (unhealthy) emotion regulation strategy. Although many people are shocked to discover people deliberately hurt themselves, there are many more socially acceptable versions of self-harm that we forget. For example, a man may punch a wall when he's upset, hurting his hand. Or someone may get a tattoo in an effort to "feel something".
Although it's unclear whether these different types of self-harm share common emotional undertones, the research suggests that self-harm is frequently practiced in the context of intense, overwhelming negative emotions and has even been shown to reduce negative emotions and alter physiology is ways that induce a sense of calm . So this is an effective emotion regulation strategy in the short term, but not the longer term.
4. Expressive suppression
Expressive suppression, or hiding the expression of our emotions on our face, is one way we attempt to squash emotions. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work. We actually end up increasing physiological activation associated with negative emotion and do ourselves more harm than good.
Video: Emotions on the face and experience of emotion
Experiential avoidance tends to be an unhealthy emotion regulation strategy. Basically we try to avoid the situations or experiences that we know will cause us negative emotions. Perhaps we are afraid to fly so we avoid it. Maybe we have social anxiety so we avoid people. Or maybe we're just insecure so we avoid doing things where we might fail. But by avoiding these situations, we avoid key experiences that can make life more enjoyable for us.
I do believe there is a caveat here though. Sometimes it's okay to avoid. In fact it can be beneficial to avoid abusive relationships, to end friendships that hurt our self esteem, and to avoid foods that put us in a bad mood. The goal here is to be thoughtful about what you're avoiding and be clear on whether it's helping you in both the short term and long term.
6. Retail therapy
We commonly hear that "retail therapy" is a tool we can use to feel better. In graduate school I was interested in whether this was actually an unhealthy emotion regulation strategy. Indeed, my research showed that shopping makes use feel better in the short term, but worse in the longer term. So using retail therapy to regulate emotions is not generally a good idea.
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About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.