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Mastering Emotional Regulation: A Guide to Transforming Your Life

The ability to regulate your emotions is one of life's most important skills. People who can regulate their emotions have higher self-worth, a better ability to cope with stress, healthier relationships, less impulsivity, and more empathy for others. Did you know that our habitual reactions to emotions are formed before the age of 7? Ideally, in childhood, we had parental figures who mirrored our emotional states ("I see you are angry") and taught us healthy ways to cope with big feelings. Through this process, we learned that we are safe, and we learned to self-soothe. Self-soothing is the experience of regulating overwhelming emotional states in healthy ways, allowing us to calm down, feel safe again, and return our nervous system to a relaxed state. Unfortunately, it is common for children not to receive teaching or modeling around this. If your caregivers could not self-regulate and had high reactivity even in minor situations, you are more likely to struggle with the same issues. For many young children expressing themselves, they are met with caregivers who punish them, shame them, ignore them altogether, or manipulate them/gaslight them. Instead of learning how to respond to a difficult situation, they learn to suppress, ignore, shut down, or lie about their emotions. Since many of us didn't learn this developmental process, we are likely to struggle to cope when life situations tax our delicate emotional capacities. To learn emotional regulation, we need to dismantle our deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and behaving and create new habits around our emotions.

Examples of Emotional Immaturity:

  • High defensiveness

  • Discomfort expressing emotions

  • Inability to accurately name or describe what emotions you are feeling

  • Difficulty tolerating a difference of opinions

  • Shutting down or lashing out when in conflict

  • Blaming others when something goes wrong

  • Lack of communication skills; lack of boundaries

  • Avoiding conflict at all costs

  • Fawning/people-pleasing

  • Overexplaining

  • Emotional dumping

  • Passive-aggressive behavior

When we become emotionally triggered, it can cause us to lash out at people, use substances or other addictive activities to numb, distract, and soothe ourselves, fall into an emotional spiral where we feel taken hostage by the overwhelm, or cause us to completely shut down and check out. The less able and often we can self-soothe, the more dysregulated our nervous system becomes. This causes added stress that the body was not designed to handle long term, eventually leading us to a chronically activated, inflamed, hyper-stressed nervous system. But the good news is, we can all do the work to address our dysregulated nervous system, understand our triggers, and find healthy ways to cope throughout life.

What is an Emotional Trigger? An emotional trigger means you're experiencing a trauma response to a core wound. Note: this does not have to be a "big" trauma such as a life-altering event or childhood abuse. It could develop from feeling insignificant, having parents who were workaholics and never around, being a lifelong people-pleaser, or feeling judged or shamed. When triggered, we often experience the past in the present, leading to seemingly disproportionate reactions. Younger parts of ourselves often come out when triggered, resulting in childish reactions like yelling or name-calling, shutting down instead of healthy communication, avoiding, and emotional meltdowns.

Common Emotional Triggers:

  • Powerless

  • Judged

  • Unheard

  • Unsafe

  • Excluded

  • Blamed

  • Disrespected

  • Lonely

  • Uncared for

  • Forgotten

  • Unloved

  • Manipulated

  • Frustrated

  • Trapped

  • Disconnected

  • Controlled

  • Unable to be honest

Understanding the Connection with Our Nervous System: How we react to triggers depends on the nervous system state we are in, whether relaxed in a parasympathetic state or activated in a sympathetic state (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). The fight or flight response, especially, can feel extremely intense within the body (heart racing, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, overwhelming emotions). When this happens, we are emotionally flooded, making it difficult to think, speak, or react appropriately because we don't have access to the logical part of our brain. In those moments, all extra resources are shunted to a specific part of the brain focused solely on keeping you alive. Higher-level thinking, including logic, contemplation, problem-solving, compromise, is shut off. This is why just thinking positive thoughts or trying to change our thinking won't help in the moment. We must first calm the physical body, and only then will the brain follow suit. The health of our nervous system influences everything from our thoughts to the way we connect with others, to how we perceive and experience the world. Many "mental health disorders" are symptoms of long-time nervous system dysregulation, showing up as high emotional reactivity, feeling out of control, intrusive thoughts, moodiness, chronic depression/anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia, extreme fatigue, or emotional shutdown (dissociation).

man sitting cross legged in a chair wearing all black thinking

Our Thoughts and Feelings Are Not Fact: It is important to know that our distressing thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms do not necessarily represent reality. Thoughts and feelings are not the truth of who we are. Thoughts are neural firings within our brains, heavily influenced by whether we are primed for a life-and-death battle or relaxed and happy. With time and practice, we can learn that irrational or intrusive thoughts come and go and develop new ways to respond and react.

Learning How to Emotionally Regulate: In order to heal, we must commit to a daily practice of creating a new baseline for our nervous system by expanding our window of tolerance. This makes us more flexible, resilient, and able to recover from stress and return to homeostasis. We must also learn to develop an awareness of the constant self-talk operating in the background, approach it with a sense of curiosity instead of judgment, invite and embrace discomfort, and consciously choose to respond in a different way.

The following outlines a simple—albeit difficult—highly effective approach to emotional regulation:

Address Your Nervous System: When we have been in a chronic fight or flight state for years, the immune system cannot function properly, leaving us vulnerable to a host of illnesses. Inflammation wreaks havoc on the body; hormones and important neurotransmitters are disrupted; our gut health suffers, and our mental health declines. Address things like vitamin deficiencies (example: Folate and B12 play a key role in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine); gut health; eliminating toxins; and eliminating unhealthy coping strategies. Then, begin teaching your body resilience by pushing yourself until it is uncomfortable but not to the point of danger. Examples include cold plunges, sauna, breathwork, intermittent fasting, exercise, meditation, yoga. You are teaching yourself that you can handle the discomfort and becoming stronger with each exercise.

Pause: To change your original learned response to overwhelming emotions, start with a pause before reacting to something that creates an intense feeling or leaves you feeling "triggered." You'll have an immediate impulse to do something when you feel these emotions. It might be to soothe with junk food, yell or argue, or distract with social media or TV. The pause allows a break between stimulus and response, meaning

At IVY Integrative, you can work with one practitioner or build your own team of holistic practitioners! Reach your optimum health in-person or online. Check out our Get Started page to learn how to work with us!

Author: Karen McKinney, LCMHCA


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This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.



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