Your professor makes a snide remark that you are always late in submitting your assignments. You bristle, as this is only the second time you have missed a deadline, and reply with a snarky, “But professors are also late in their correction”, only to immediately regret your words.
“Why don’t you go to the gym or for a walk?” suggests your father when he finds you curled up on the sofa. “Stop controlling what I do,” you yell.
You confide in a good friend that you are attracted to a girl only to discover that he has posted a picture of both of you with the caption, “Samir and his latest crush” on Instagram. You immediately unfollow him and block his number after sending him an acerbic message in which you highlight his disability. As soon as you press Send, you regret crossing the threshold of decency.
We often react to provocations automatically without sifting through various choices we might have. While it’s natural to feel peeved, angry or even livid, we don’t have to act on our first impulses. In an article on the website Psyche, psychotherapist and author Sheri van Dijk outlines how we can grow more skilled at emotional regulation.
Contrary to what some people think, emotional regulation doesn’t imply that we suppress, ignore or dismiss our feelings as irrational or irrelevant. Instead, emotional regulation involves learning how to “manage and cope” with our emotions, especially negative ones, without being controlled or swayed by them. When we are unable to regulate our emotions appropriately, we end up hurting others and ourselves. If emotional dysregulation occurs frequently, the consequences can be quite harmful, both for our relationships and our well-being.
So, what can you do when you are confronted by environmental triggers? Immediately, a cascade of negative emotions may course through you while you are simultaneously bombarded by pessimistic, hot thoughts. When you are thus overwhelmed, it is best to first calm the fire before it lashes out. Van Dijk suggests some quick-fix solutions to slow your body down. Bend down as if to touch your toes (never mind if you can’t) and do some slow breathing in that position for 30 seconds to minute. Make sure you lift yourself up gradually. Apparently, the bending posture “activates our parasympathetic system,” and thereby pauses our fight-or-flight system. You may also try “paced breathing,” wherein in you breathe in to a count of four and exhale to a count of five or six. Ideally, the out-breath should be longer than the inhale.
Next, try and label your emotions as accurately as possible. If you are upset, can you discern whether you are frustrated, anxious or angry? Though you may think this is a straightforward exercise, many people, especially when they are flooded by emotions, cannot readily discriminate between various negative emotions. To build your emotional awareness, you may also ask yourself the following questions. What triggered these emotions in me? What were my thoughts regarding the precipitating event? Was I being judgmental or making assumptions? How did my body feel? Were any particular muscles tight, was my breathing fast, shallow? What were my instinctual urges? Did I want to hit out, scream or throw objects around? Did I give in to these urges?
As you enhance your self-awareness, you may also learn to accept your emotions. Getting angry with yourself for getting angry or blaming yourself for feeling anxious will only add fuel to your cauldron of emotions. Emotions, by themselves, aren’t good or bad. Remember, there is a big difference between feeing angry and hitting out. The first one is an emotion and the second is a behaviour. While you may validate the emotion, you need not endorse the behaviour. Van Dijk reminds us that validating an emotion doesn’t mean you like it or want it to continue. However, only by accepting our emotions can we learn to cope with them more adroitly.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know and blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com