By Karina Taylee
Have you been feeling stressed, sad or disappointed during the last several months?
Pause. Before you start repressing those feelings and wishing they’d go away, remember that all feelings are meant to be felt. Feelings communicate your needs and give you feedback on your current situation. So how do you listen to your emotions and respond to them, instead of reacting?
“If you found that before the pandemic, you didn’t use effective self-regulation strategies, now it’s really a situation where those poor coping skills are not going to cut it. And that can really be a big problem,” says assistant professor George Buzzell, a neurocognitive researcher at FIU.
Buzzell studies the brain’s executive functions, which is a fancy way of saying the system your brain uses to monitor and adapt itself as it receives new information. We currently know that this system has three branches: working memory, inhibition and task switching.
At its core, emotional regulation is your ability to use these three functions to make use of your emotions.
Have you ever noticed yourself getting emotional and then forgetting things, saying something you don’t mean, or struggling to get tasks done? That’s what poor emotional regulation looks like. That means that your executive functions need some TLC. Lucky for us, emotional regulation is a skill that can be improved upon with some research-based techniques.
Basic functions—because of lack of sleep, increased stress and loneliness—can be impaired as a result of the pandemic. To have a healthy relationship with your emotions, the key is to keep your executive function system healthy and that starts with self-care.
Buzzell emphasizes the impact of sleep and stress on your executive functions. It has been shown that a lack of sleep can impair self-regulation, meaning you may have less control over your responses to your emotions, which is why you’re snappy when you’re tired. Sometimes, your negative emotions can keep you from falling asleep, creating a vicious cycle further promoting the problem. This can also happen with stress, meaning having a healthy stress reduction system can also help your executive functions.
So what’s the solution? Find activities you enjoy and incorporate them into your daily routine, like journaling and exercise. If you struggle with stress or sleep, the Healthy Living Program (HLP) offers sleep and stress management consultations.
Maintain healthy relationships
We can also use healthy relationships to regulate emotions by having a trusted friend or loved one to confide in, which is why you usually feel better after venting to a friend. Socializing can help to calm your mind and can even help regulate your body’s physical response to emotions. Although we can’t see people face-to-face as often right now, you don’t want to cut yourself off from people you were previously close to.
Buzzell recommends trying to maintain previous social connections as much as possible in safe ways like phone calls, Zoom calls, or outdoor socially distant hangouts because they’re good for your mental health.
Stop suppressing and start reappraising
Two of the most studied emotional regulation techniques are called reappraisal and suppression. Suppression is when you try to stop yourself from feeling emotions. When we do this, we often find that negative emotions return stronger than before.
Buzzell recommends practicing reappraisal instead. Reappraisal is changing the way you think about a negative emotion before having a response.
For example, if you made a mistake and feel disappointed, you can tell yourself that it was a learning experience and then you are more likely to have a positive response instead of a negative one. This promotes a growth mindset, which studies show promotes healthier relationships with emotions. The good news is that people can actually change how they regulate their emotions to be more in line with reappraisal.
One way to practice nonjudgmental awareness is to meditate, and it’s a lot easier than you might think. Simply taking five to ten minutes a day to notice what your body and mind feel like can help you gain an understanding of your emotional habits. This can act as a practice for when you experience emotions in your regular life. When meditating, play close attention to any emotions that may arise and how your instinct tells you to respond. You can ask yourself:
- What kind of emotions arise, and how often do they come?
- How does your body feel when they arise?
- How does your mind respond?
- Are there any judgments when emotions arise?
- Is that response helpful? Is there a better way to respond?
Prevent emotional outbursts If you’ve ever blown something small out of proportion, you probably felt pretty bad afterward. The good news is that Buzzell believes that the best way to manage explosive emotional experiences is through a regular practice of prevention.
He recommends practicing reappraisal daily with small instances. This makes it less likely that you’ll yell at someone the next time Zoom kicks you out of class.
“The problem is if it’s a really intense situation, that’s not the time to try to do some mindfulness or reappraisal strategies for the first time,” Buzzell says.
Having a healthy relationship with your emotions is more likely to make challenging times easier by preventing tense emotional interactions.
If you have been struggling with controlling your emotions, know that it’s normal for you to not feel like yourself during unusual times. While we’re waiting for the world to go back to normal, don’t forget to take care of your emotional wellness. Practicing these techniques can help you get a grasp on your emotions, and help you relax, feel good and be well.