What is emotional regulation?
Emotional Regulation is the brain's ability, through conscious and unconscious means, to create emotional states that are synchronized with our current environment and needs.
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Understanding Emotional Regulation
A question we’re often asked is "How do I help myself to re-regulate when I become dysregulated"? It's an important question and to answer it, we need to discuss how the brain or central nervous system works, how it generates emotions, and what triggers heightened emotional reactions. When people have a sound intellectual understanding of how their brains work, it helps them to create the distance needed in the moment to stay aware and responsive and be less reactive.
What part of the brain causes emotional dysregulation?
The limbic part of the brain, also known as the reptilian brain, is the part that creates a stress response and emotional dysregulation. The stress response is the body's natural way of keeping itself safe and preventing harm. Part of this response is creating heightened emotional states, which are a part of the brain’s natural defensive system. However, when these heightened emotional states become habituated, we refer to that condition as being “dysregulated”.
We experience the stress response as our own daily habits, like:
- feeling "stressed out,"
- not being able to sleep well,
- being overly reactive,
- having mental ruminations and
- feeling hopeless and helpless.
All these habits form from heightened emotional states, tied to the limbic brain's activity. This part of the brain is always listening and looking for cues that the present is dangerous or seems similar to a past situation in which we experienced a sense of threat or danger. When that “danger/threat” cue happens (and those cues are different for everyone), our brain goes on autopilot.
Something helpful to understand about the limbic brain is that it doesn't take orders from the prefrontal lobe or cortex, which is our thoughtful, willful, planning brain. The prefrontal cortex is what we think of as our conscious self, our ability to pivot from thinking about something to going into action on a plan. Or remembering there's an event taking place and then doing something about it. Those abilities are what we call the higher brain. The limbic brain is part of the core or midbrain that's a more primitive part of our brain.
Why do we go into emotional dysregulation?
The limbic brain (inaccurately or accurately) perceiving something in our environment as a threat, is what creates dysregulation. It's important to understand how the limbic brain defines a threat: something that's going to cause us bodily harm in less than a minute. When it receives that cue, the limbic brain takes over and engages in automatic functioning to ensure the safety of our bodies: it will signal to take an action, like punch, run, or play dead. Or, as it's commonly called, go into the fight, flight, or freeze phase.
Signs You Are In dysregulation
Hyper-arousal is the fight/flight, energetic response. The signs you are chronically in fight/flight are:
- worrying, and mental looping,
- irritability, chronically snippy and impatient with others,
- always seeing the problem as a crisis and fixating on it.
Hypo-arousal is the freeze or "play dead" energetic response. The signs you are in freeze response are:
- feeling down and unmotivated,
- feeling depressed,
- assuming we don't have any power or agency,
- feeling hopeless,
- wanting to curl up in a ball and hide.
Whether in hyper - or hypo - arousal the design of these energetic reactions to danger is the brain’s instant response to ensure survival. These fight/flight/freeze reactions are meant to be used momentarily as a strategy to ward off immediate danger. Ideally, the brain uses these interventions for just the amount of time needed so that whatever it perceives as danger, can pass or be resolved. When the danger has been resolved, the brain is supposed to perceive that change and then shift states into what we call “regulation”. Regulation is when the limbic brain perceives the environment as safe.
You might be thinking, “Well, I don't experience immediate danger and threats to my body's safety so why is my brain going into that fight/flight/freeze response energy?”.
This is a very important question. In the field of mental health, we’ve come to understand that the limbic brain gets habituated to taking little cues from the environment to gauge its response. For example, say there’s a loud BANG! sound. The limbic part of the brain goes, "Ah! I know what this is - this loud bang sound is like that time when I was playing in the street as a child, and I almost got hit by a car. I'm going back into that stress response patterning to stay safe!". Or it perceives something else that’s like another, previous historically "threatening" event.
I put threatening in quotes because often when the brain became habituated to this patterning, our ability to keep ourselves safe was very different from our abilities today. For example, if we are two years old, our bodies are going to perceive things as a threat that, today, we wouldn't. As adults now, we can resolve issues for ourselves we couldn’t as toddlers or babies. So rather than needing our parents or adults, we can manage our environment and, our needs: we make ourselves food. We can communicate with words. We have an understanding of the world that's much more sophisticated than when we were young.
One important point to understand about stress response triggers or cues is that danger as a child is very different than danger as an adult. And the habitual cue that signals “danger/threat” as an adult is usually one connected to a younger self's world.
Said differently, what is perceived by the body as potentially dangerous when we're young, is very different than what we would perceive as dangerous today, as adults. When that patterning (as a young person) was locked in place it might have been in response to say, delays in being picked up to be fed when we were a toddler or infant that cued the body to go into that stress response. When you're an infant, an adult being absent could trigger a danger signal because your literal survival is dependent upon their presence. Of course, as an adult, if another adult isn't present your limbic brain is not going to go on high alert when you are hungry. However, if you were not fed regularly as an infant or toddler, as an adult being hungry and alone may cue that survival brain to go into a stress response. When we were young that experience set the stress response reaction habit in place (again, as a safety measure to help ensure our survival). So as an adult or a young adult, something as seemingly harmless as seeing you’re low on food in the refrigerator could easily trigger a limbic brain response from very early childhood connected with food insecurity.
To summarize again, why does emotional dysregulation occur in adults? One way is that we are habituated to a stress response due to earlier perceived threats to our bodily safety and those triggers can be difficult to identify. Sometimes we have been in a habitual pattern of a stress response, such as worrying for so long that it becomes part of how we self-identify.
Another way we create a habit of dysregulation is through how we think about ourselves. Some examples of how emotional dysregulation can impact our thinking:
- we think about ourselves as not safe in the world,
- we instinctively feel people are untrustworthy,
- we fixate on future bad outcomes as true, like we’re going to lose our job any second,
- can't discern between now and a bad outcome that days, weeks, months or years ahead.
If we identify with this stress or danger-based belief structure it can become the setup for our stress response to be re-triggered over and over again.
The question of “why is our limbic brain in charge?”, and in that stress response/ emotional dysregulation is a complicated topic. But if we can bring some focus to the basic dynamic and understand it intellectually, it can be a real support for shifting out of that response. The important thing to know is that 1. Emotional dysregulation gets triggered by random things or semi-random things and then, 2. That primitive limbic brain takes over and becomes more active than the prefrontal cortex.
How do we Stabilize emotional regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to register that we are dysregulated – and then, to have a toolkit of supports that helps us to regain emotional balance. Part of the strategy is to help the limbic brain register that there is safety - and no present danger. Remember: the brain's definition is specific, "is there something that will cause me serious bodily harm in the next minute?". If the answer is “no” we engage in our self-regulation strategies.
Self-Awareness As First Step Towards Emotional Regulation
What are the tools that support coming out of that dysregulated state and into self-regulation? The first one is to talk about biofeedback tools. Biofeedback is the ability to use our conscious awareness to tune into whether we are dysregulated. Here are some physical, mental, and emotional cues to be aware of that indicate you may be headed toward a dysregulated state.
- an elevated heart rate,
- shallow breathing, or holding one's breath,
- muscle tension, such as in the shoulders,
- scanning the environment with our eyes, or freezing our gaze.
- thoughts that are about things going wrong,
- looping negative thoughts,
- trying to change the topic of thought and finding it returning to a worry,
- thoughts being speedy.
- hyper-arousal emotions of the fight/flight response,
- anxious, irritable, impatient, controlling,
- name-calling, angry,
- fearful, clingy,
- hypo-arousal emotions of the freeze response,
- uninspired, fearful-avoidant,
- numb, spaced out,
- hopeless, helpless,
- feel powerless.
Once we use our self-awareness to identify signs of emotional dysregulation, we can use biofeedback tools to consciously bring ourselves back into regulation. An example of a tool that is always available is using the breath. We use slower breathing to help signal to the brain that we are safe. In turn, our heart rate will slow, and the parasympathetic nervous system will reengage.
Another biofeedback tool we can engage for self-regulation is using cold therapy. It is very effective when in a state of hyperarousal to place a cold compress on the forehead and neck for up to 5 minutes. It is an effective way to communicate with the limbic brain to down-regulate.
A sign that the limbic brain is shifting out of dysregulation is that the body spontaneously takes a big breath or sighs. During neurofeedback sessions, which is a technique to trigger the limbic brain to register safety in the present, often within the first 10 minutes of doing a session people’s bodies naturally, breathe more deeply or, they inhale - a big “sigh”. That's a cue the brain's registering the present as safe and bringing you out of a deregulated state.
The conscious, or biofeedback approach would be to force the breath to be deeper and to reflect the oxygen needs of a safe environment: shallow, fast breathing brings in more oxygen now! It’s a signal the body is prepping itself for a quick getaway. But conscious, deeper breathing communicates the message, "Hey if I'm breathing deeply that means the environment is safe and we're not needing to use those stress hormones and primitive survival strategies."
Five Tools for Immediate Emotional Regulation
Box breathingUsing the breath to down-regulate is a well-researched tool. It combines engaging the parasympathetic rest mode as well as limits our mind's ability to re-trigger emotional dysregulation. Three minutes of box breathing is a good starting place.
Some animals in nature, when they are clear of danger will shake their bodies as an act of regulation after the danger has passed. It is the origin of the expression "shake it off” and can be done as a practice to help regulate.
New research shows that we think differently and make better decisions after having had a meal than if we have not eaten. Eating (especially a meal with protein) signals to the body it's time to “rest and digest”, (as opposed to fight and flee). Registering that it's time to digest is under the control of the parasympathetic response. When we're in that state of regulation the body then starts to digest. Eating a handful of nuts or a chunk of cheese is a way to communicate to the brain, so it registers “safety” (no animal or rational animal eats when they’re in a dangerous situation) and switches out of that sympathetic response – and into the parasympathetic.
Going for a walk or run.
Going for a walk consciously is a way we engage in the flight energy for a while so that it can then downshift to regulation. If we combine that walk or run with noticing the sights and sounds in the environment that are positive and enriching (the beautiful leaves on a tree, or hearing birds chirp) further helps the brain shift. Also, listening to uplifted music that prevents the mind from engaging in negative thoughts or ruminating is also helpful.
Self-talk.Having a positive self-commentary is very important for being able to re-regulate our emotions. Engaging our self-awareness is an important tool to remind ourselves that we're just going into a habitual reaction and actually, we’re not in imminent danger. This self-talk when we believe it, allows us to pivot away from those self-ruminating catastrophic thoughts and away from strong emotional states. The key is to talk in a tone that is caring and clear about the goal of creating greater calm and a feeling of being “grounded”. Literally, safe, and not, in fight, flight or freeze. We can then make a choice to regulate, like listening to uplifting music, calling a friend, or even watching a fun, positive show.
Speaking Directly to the brain
There are several things that we can do in the moment to indirectly signal to the brain to regulate. There are also tools that speak directly to the limbic brain. Neurofeedback devices communicate directly with that primitive brain so that it can register that it's not in a dangerous environment. That is an important tool because as discussed before, when the limbic brain takes over and produces that stress response it bypasses our rational thought process. It is not going to the rational, thoughtful prefrontal cortex and saying, "Hey, is it really okay to take over now and problem-solve with my punch/run/play dead?". There's no dialogue that takes place. When the limbic brain is triggered or cued it is an instant and habitual reaction. We're always trying to find ways to get the brain to register a safe environment – the good news is that, when it does registers safety, it comes back into a state of regulation.
How does neurofeedback speak directly to the brain?
How does neurofeedback speak directly to the brain? It tracks the electrical communication of the brain and registers when there are electrical changes in the brain that reflects state change. It then uses auditory feedback, (listening is the brain's natural way to constantly check the environment for danger.) The device interrupts music and that interruption in the music cues the brain to pay attention. The brain will automatically pay attention to its surroundings because that's what the brain is designed to do. Suddenly, the brain’s asking: “What's changed in the environment that I should know about?. Specifically, has anything changed that makes me unsafe?". When cued, what we want that brain to see is that it's in a safe environment – for example, in a room where there's no danger or threat, present.
When the brain can register a no-threat environment, it will naturally shift out of that stress response, AKA, emotional dysregulation, and into regulation. When we talk about self-regulation what we're talking about is the brain’s own natural, automatic ability to shift out of being in a stress response and into that state of regulation.
Signs of Emotional Regulation
Self-regulation takes place when the brain is perceiving safety. Here are a few of the experiences you can become familiar with that signal when the brain is regulated:
- There is an unforced, natural state of openness.
- The brain is not creating a guarded stance when it comes to interacting with the environment or other people.
- There's a sense of more trustworthiness
- Feeling of workability; problems will arise but they can be worked through rather than perceived as a crisis
- Cognitive access to remembering resources and tools
- There's a longer sense of timeframe - this allows us time to understand a problem before having to act.
- Feeling calm and even uplifted or cheerful for no reason.
- Greater sense of contentment, again without needing an event to validate its legitimacy.
- Easier access to empathy and compassion.
When we're in a state of regulation we can access a greater range of emotions without just being stuck in a couple of them, and the ones that tend to be mostly fear-based.
Being Regulated and Processing Grief
When we're regulated the brain is perceiving a safe environment. That perception is key to being able to move through sadness and process grief. The brain does not grieve losses when it is stuck in a misperception of reality as unsafe. The reason is that grieving requires us to be vulnerable and vulnerability and surviving immediate danger do not go together. That is why, when someone has chronic stress, they often have a hard time resolving grief. They often get stuck in either the hypo-arousal reaction of a frozen sense of despair or the hyperarousal reaction of anger.
Emotional Regulation and Relationships
When we are regulated and that limbic brain is no longer stuck in the defense and reactivity of warding off misperceived dangers, we can approach our relationships differently. For example, a regulated brain does not want to communicate from aggression. And when there's less reactive anger, we can be less judgmental, and perceive others more accurately because our brain is not defending with auto-pilot anger.
Then the brain can reassess communication now that it's perceiving the safety of the here and now. It's like understanding, "Why am I going into attack mode (whether it's self-attack or attacking others) when there's no threat?. Why clobber someone who is not attacking me, that's not effective communication!".
When regulated, we are less reactive so we can consciously take charge of how we want to respond. Then, our communication can come from a sense of openness and thoughtfulness rather than reactive or defensive engagement. The latter includes things like being self-protective name-calling, blaming, running away, or avoiding communication. Or shutting down and not hearing what's being said and also, not being able to make the effort to communicate well. Instead, regulation allows us a ground for creating new intentional behaviors of communication that are based on the safe reality of now.