What is emotional regulation?
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 that we get 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 good 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 stress responses and emotional dysregulation. The stress response is the body's natural way of keeping itself safe and preventing itself from harm. Part of this response is created by heightened emotional states and it is this defensive system that, when habituated we call it is dysregulated.
We experience the stress response as daily habits such as:
- feeling "stressed out,"
- not being able to sleep well,
- being overly reactive,
- having mental ruminations and
- feeling hopeless and helpless.
All of 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 similar to when there has been danger in the past. When that cue happens, and for everyone it is different, it goes on auto-pilot.
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 the 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 perceives something in our environment as a threat 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. The limbic brain takes over and goes into automatic functioning to ensure the safety of our bodies. It will punch, run, or play dead. That's another way of saying fight, flight or freeze.
Signs You Are In dysregulation
Hyper-arousal is the fight/ flight energy. The signs you are chronically in fight/flight:
- 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" energy. The signs you are in freeze response:
- 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 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 for that whatever it's perceiving as a danger to pass and be resolved. When the danger has been resolved the brain is supposed to perceive such 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, but i don't experience immediate danger and threats to my body's safety so why is my brain going into that fight/flight energy or into that freeze response energy?
This is a very important question and something we've come to understand in the field of mental health is that the limbic brain gets habituated so it takes little cues from the environment and says, "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 is similar to a 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 than 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 perceive as a threat because we have the ability to resolve issues for ourselves rather than needing our parents or adults. We can 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 got put in place it might have been, for example, delays in being picked up to be fed when we were a toddler or infants 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, today 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 so that if there are cues present may be re-triggered as an adult or a young adult.
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 emotional dysregulation impacting our thinking:
- we think about ourselves as not safe in the world,
- we see people not trustworthy,
- fixated on future bad outcomes as true, such as 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 that 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 to focus on the basic dynamic and understand it intellectually is support for shifting out of it. The important thing to know is that emotional dysregulation gets triggered by random things or semi-random things and then the 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 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 regulation so self-regulation? The first is to talk about biofeedback tools. Biofeedback is the ability to use our conscious awareness to tune into whether we are dysregulated. Here are the physical, mental and emotional cues to be aware of to know when you may be becoming dysregulated.
- 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, then 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, then our heart rate will slow, and the parasympathetic nervous system will reengage.
Another biofeedback tool we can engage for self-regulation is using cold. It is very effective when in a state of hyperarousal to take 5 minutes to put a cold compress on the forehead and neck. It is an effective way we can try 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 their bodies are breathing more deeply or taking a big sigh. That's when the brain's registering the present as safe.
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 it to bring in more oxygen in preparation for a quick get-away.) Conscious deeper breathing communicates a message that translates roughly as, "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.
Shaking practices.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." It can be done as a practice to help regulate.
Eating food.New research shows that we think differently and make better decisions after having had a meal than if we have not eaten. Eating food, 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 and switches out of that sympathetic response 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 or uplifting further helps the brain shift. Or 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 to remind ourselves that we're just going into a habitual reaction and that it's not true that there's some 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. We can then make a choice that is in our toolkit to regulate such as listening to uplifting music, calling a friend, or watching an uplifting show. The key is to talk in a tone that is caring and clear about the goal of creating a greater calm and feeling grounded.
Speaking Directly to the brain
There are a number of 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, the limbic brain when it takes over and produces that stress response it is not going to the rational, thoughtful prefrontal cortex and say, "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 a reaction and it's a habitual reaction. We're always trying to find ways to get that brain to register a safe environment when it registers safety it comes into that state of regulation.
How does neurofeedback speak directly to the brain?
It tracks the electrical communication of the brain and registers when there is electrical changes in the brain that reflects state change. It then uses auditory feedback, (listening is the brain's natural way that it's constantly checking 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. 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. It's in a room where there's no danger.
When the brain is able to register no threat, it naturally will shift out of that stress response, emotional dysregulation, and into regulation. When we talk about self-regulation what we're talking about is the automatically functioning brain's ability to shift out of being into a stress response and into that state of regulation.
Signs of Emotional Regulation
Self-regulation qualities take place when the brain is perceiving safety. Here are the experiences 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 much more of a longer sense of timeframe and enough 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 the range of emotions without just being stuck in a couple of them, 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 the 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, of the hyperarousal reaction of anger.
Emotional Regulation and Relationships
When we are regulated and the limbic brain is no longer stuck in the defences 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.
It's like the brain is able to reassess communication now that it's perceiving the safety of the here-and-now. It's like saying, "Why am I going into attack mode whether it's self-attack or attack 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. Communication can come from a sense of openness and thoughtfulness rather than reactive communication. 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 not being able to make the effort to communicate well. Instead, the regulation allows us a ground for creating new intentional behaviours of communication that are based in the safe reality of now.