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September 2003
EMOTIONAL REGULATION
By Jeffrey M. Lance, Ph.D.

So many of our reactions, defenses, and interactions in life seem to be related to our ability to regulate our feeling states within a lower and upper threshold of emotional tolerance. What I mean by this is that we overreact, become defensive, and use compulsive and addictive behavior to attempt to either calm ourselves out of feelings of anxiety/panic/terror, or deflation/depression/despair states. When something in our environment (persons, events, and experiences) threatens to trigger off these states, and we experience that we wonât be able to stop our own internal escalation of anxiety or deflation, then we go into defensive or addictive and compulsive behavioral modes of coping by either over or under reacting, to try and regulate the escalating states. We feel threatened with becoming out of control, and the anticipatory anxiety, or signal anxiety states we experience, triggers us into well-entrenched attempts at emotional regulation.

Unfortunately, these very protective attempts at emotional regulation and security are the very things that create distress in our interpersonal relations, and problems in living in our adult lives. Many of us don't even realize that we are reacting or regulating ourselves by these maneuvers. We do them automatically, or realize them in retrospect. Often those closest to us (wife, children, etc.), are the ones who know about them, and pay the price interpersonally (feeling their negative impact).

I am always amazed in my work with couples, at how well they our able to pick these aspects out in each other, but how oblivious they are to their own defenses, and over/under reactions. This is the case for most of us. There are many ways we can attempt to regulate ourselves that are maladaptive in the present context of our lives. Here is a list of some of the more common ones:

  1. Being controlling
  2. Compulsive eating
  3. Compulsive over working
  4. Perfectionism
  5. Substance abuse
  6. Alcohol abuse
  7. Intimidation
  8. Yelling
  9. Threatening
  10. Compulsive cleaning
  11. Smoking
  12. Constant activity
  13. Distracting ourselves
  14. Avoidance behavior
  15. Not listening
  16. Not expressing
  17. Denial of reality
  18. Trying to be special
  19. Compulsive achievement
  20. Compulsive performance
  21. Always needing to succeed
  22. Fear of failure
  23. Fear of success
I could go on, but you get the point. Any behaviors that are used to try and alter our moods that have life damaging consequences. I am sure many people will retort that we need some of these to cope with our lives and manage our emotions. This , I feel, is a common view. However, if we want to continue to grow and become freer of these compulsive overreactions, we must find healthier ways of regulating ourselves and more adaptive ways of trying to feel safe and secure. What might some healthier ways be? Here are some that come to mind:

Here is my list of some more adaptive ways of regulating affect:

  1. Self soothing and self comforting behaviors:
    -letting ourselves cry and just feel our feelings,
    -silent prayer/meditation, or to music/sounds,
    -sharing our feelings in a non defensive way,
    -relaxation techniques, with or without music,
    -listening to calming music,
    -getting enough sleep and exercise,
    -reaching out for support to spouse/close friends etc.,
    -getting into a supportive therapeutic relationship with a therapist good at empathy and connecting with you.
  2. Walking in nature
  3. Making your life simpler
  4. Lowering your standard of living; smaller house, fewer cars, work closer to home if possible, but have more quality time with spouse/children etc.
  5. Reframe what success in life means; letting go of unhealthy societal expectations for success, achievement, performance.
  6. Get use to and accept making mistakes, and see them as a natural part of growth in life.
  7. Let go of harsh self-talk, and masochistic/sadistic ways of relating to yourself.
  8. Have Faith, and learn to let things go, without denying their reality.
I could go on, but this should suffice for this article. The point is to develop soothing, calming and revitalizing (emotional regulating) experiences that don't have negative consequences for you or others. You might want to add to both of these lists based on your own experience with emotional regulation, or dysregulation. Remember, this is an ongoing process for all of us. The point is progress, not perfection. Donât turn it into another compulsion!

Dr. Lance is a psychotherapist in practice in Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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