Five strategies for emotion regulation – the core of emotional resilience

Thursday, February 13th, 2020 by Cliff.

Emotional resilience is about our ability to cope with, and adapt to, stressful situations – and at the core of this is emotion regulation, the ability to manage our own emotions. This is centred around the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS interacts with the internal organs, including the blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, lungs, pupils, heart, and sweat, salivary, and digestive glands. It has two opposing sides to it:

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – responsible for fight and flight responses to information coming in from the environment, thoughts and feelings.
  2. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – helps with rest and digest functions, conserving physical resources.

If, for example, you are facing a threat and need to flee, the sympathetic system will quickly mobilise your body to take action. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic system will then start to dampen these responses, slowly returning your body to its normal, resting state.

Emotional resilience is helped by our traits and mindset, including such qualities as positivity, optimism, humour, curiosity, and a desire to learn. It is also, however, a skill that can be developed and this, in turn, can help change and support a healthy mindset. We can learn to be aware of emotions as they are arising, and then interrupt and regulate any emotions that are destructive towards others and our own well-being. This emotion regulation is the core of emotional intelligence which is about the ability to recognise, manage and regulate our emotions and behaviour when we are alone, and during interactions with others.

The emotional primate within us is designed to react to threats of harm, loss, pleasure, offence, and anyone interfering with our goals. This mammalian core of the human is almost like a chimpanzee (see the book, ‘Chimp Paradox’ by Steve Peters for more around this analogy). These triggers can be actual, but emotions are also brought on by our imagination and our memories. Many of these evolved, innate reactions can save our lives, help us develop relationships, and/or motivate behaviour. Such reactions, of humans and chips, can occur in less than a second without thought, and can therefore get us into trouble or damage our well-being. If, for example, we are in a busy street and are suddenly pushed from the rear, we may react by turning around and attacking the threat by striking the person behind us. That may be inappropriate if we learn that the contact came from an elderly person who simply lost their balance and fell towards us.

So, there are practical strategies we can use to regulate our own emotions when it is constructive and useful to do so. It is useful, though, to realise that emotions happen to us within half a second, below our conscious control, and yet it takes around 1.2 seconds for the pre-frontal cortex (our thinking brain) to engage and rationalise what is going on. This means the primitive, emotional brain will initiate a reaction to a threat automatically (e.g. such as running or fighting) to help us to deal with the threat. The five strategies (see also Gross, Sheppes and Urry, 2011 – research which inspired this list) are as follows:

1. Manage the chimp (or ’emotion interrupt’)

This is the ability to interrupt the reaction, only for a second or two (can be helped by developing the simple habit of taking a deep in-breath and a slow out-breath), to give us the chance to appraise the appropriateness of what is about to happen in our ‘autopilot’ state. If the reaction is appropriate, we can let it take its natural course – if it isn’t appropriate then we can choose to ‘grab the controls’ to take action that can help us to regulate the emotion so we can change our thinking and behaviour. This can then result in a conscious response, rather than a sub-conscious reaction.

2. Suppress, mask or squash the emotion

This involves pushing emotional thoughts and feelings out of your mind. This can be useful if you are feeling angry towards your colleague, friend or partner but don’t want to show it. It would also be useful, for example, where you were walking down a dark, quiet street and you wanted to suppress and mask the fear you were feeling when walking towards a stranger. Suppression can be useful, though such ‘bottling-up’ of emotions can also have negative consequences for us and our interactions – research has shown that suppression results in blood pressure increases and a decrease in rapport (Butler et al 2003/9). Be careful though… as this conscious suppression only comes into play around 1.2 seconds after the trigger, whereas the impulses that result from the physiological changes in our body (the SNS) can show on the face and body (as micro-gestures or micro-expressions), within 400 milliseconds (less than half a second)!

3. Redirect your attention

Also known as ‘attentional deployment’, is about distracting yourself by disengaging from the trigger and shifting your focus towards a different activity or thought that may prevent you from reacting inappropriately.

4. Reframe what is going on positively

Psychologists call this ‘cognitive reappraisal’; it is about interrupting the ‘story’ that the emotion is generating and creating a ‘Story 2’ that is more conducive towards constructive responses and personal well-being. An example may be when a car overtakes you in a slow-moving queue on your way home from work and takes the small space in front of you. Story 1 maybe about how rude this driver is for thinking their time is more important than yours. Story 2 could be about the driver rushing to take a really sick child, who is on the back seat, to a hospital. OK… Story 2 may be wrong but it is much better for our health if we have positive thoughts and not allow others to make us stressed and irate. What do we lose if we are wrong?… maybe we arrive home from work 5 seconds later.

5. Change the context

This is when we try to change the place and time of an interaction to create space between ourselves and the emotional trigger to allow us to cool off. It can also help to have a change of scene – if, for example, someone who is making us angry at work in a meeting it may help to take a break and go for an informal chat with that person over a coffee. Maybe move from a formal setting to an informal setting, take a walk while you talk, or suggest that a difficult conversation be suspended and pick it up at a better time. The situation can also be changed by a switch in our conversational style, using humour, or switching from speaking/shouting to listening and understanding. You should also consider time and place in advance – is this the right time and place for this conversation?

Applying such strategies can take the trauma out of emotional episodes that we trigger within ourselves, and those that are triggered by others, resulting in a healthier, constructive approach to life and work to aid our resilience and well-being.

References

Butler, E.A., Egloff, B., Wlhelm, F.H., Smith, N.C., Erickson, E.A. and Gross, J.J., 2003. The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion3(1), p.48.

Butler, E.A., Lee, T.L. and Gross, J.J., 2009. Does expressing your emotions raise or lower your blood pressure? The answer depends on cultural context. Journal of cross-cultural psychology40(3), pp.510-517.

Gross, J.J., Sheppes, G. and Urry, H.L., 2011. Emotion generation and emotion regulation: A distinction we should make (carefully). Cognition and emotion (Print)25(5), pp.765-781.

Cliff Lansley
Article by Cliff Lansley

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.

5 responses to “Five strategies for emotion regulation – the core of emotional resilience”

  1. Chason Hayes says:

    These articles should always be accompanied by a disclaimer stating that implementation requires a great deal of effort and years of mind training through meditation. This puts it in perspective for those who wonder why it seems so simple but is hard in actuality.

  2. Cliff says:

    Hi Chason. Thanks for pointing out that some of the skills that underpin these strategies can be challenging… and I agree that mindfulness and meditation are great disciplines to support emotion awareness and regulation. What surprises us, though, is that many people can make good leaps forward by simply pausing (with a deep breath), redirecting their attention, changing the context, and/or reframing the situation. These early wins can then prompt them to dig deeper into the training you highlight.

  3. Tracy Evans says:

    This article grabbed my attention! However, I would like to ask, this article talks about ‘fight or flight’, what do you do if your natural response to danger or the perception of danger, is to freeze? How do you regulate disassociation and detachment from feelings? Any hints or tips would be gratefully received.

  4. Hi Tracy. Great point! Research suggests that a freeze response may occur in some threatening situations. Specifically, freezing, or tonic immobility, may overwhelm other competing action tendencies (Barlow, 2004). So when flight (fleeing) or fight (aggressive) responses are likely to be ineffective, a freeze response may take place.
    I would recommend an old but interesting study by Schmidt, N.B., et al, 2008. The research concludes that “reports of freeze were more highly associated with certain cognitive symptoms of anxiety (e.g., confusion, unreality, detached, concentration, inner shakiness). This leads to some very interesting speculation regarding whether freeze responses are also manifested cognitively (i.e., the cognitive system, together with the behavioral [sic] system, being shut down)”. Here is a link to the paper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204/?_escaped_fragment_=po=0.757576

    As to tips on regulating the disassociation and detachment from feelings… this was the purpose of the blog and the 5 strategies – albeit basic advice. Let me know if it is one or more of the strategies that you are keen to explore and I will try to elaborate and help?

    Refs:
    – Barlow, D.H., 2004. Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic. Guilford press.
    – Schmidt, N.B., Richey, J.A., Zvolensky, M.J. and Maner, J.K., 2008. Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(3), pp.292-304.

  5. […] Then pause. We don’t have to act immediately, just because we have an internal reaction. We can pause, not act, breathe in deeply and exhale slowly – once will do. We can watch this urge to act irrationally arise, then let it go away. Sometimes that takes a few seconds, other times it means we should remove ourselves politely from the situation and let ourselves cool down before we respond. See also this article on five tips for Emotion Regulation. […]

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