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5 strategies for managing your emotions using emotional regulation

The past year has sent us reeling through a vast range of emotions: worry, stress, boredom, as well as hope, empathy and optimism. According to the second wave of our study conducted with researchers from the University of British Columbia, almost half of people (48%) in Canada reported feeling worried and anxious during the second wave of the pandemic, while only 17% felt optimistic.

Given the pandemic, it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions, and when faced with unpleasant, or so-called “negative,” emotions, many of us use strategies to calm them. Thankfully, you can learn to regulate your emotions to make them easier to experience.

What does emotional regulation mean?

It’s basically a science-y way of saying “dealing with your feelings.” Emotional regulation refers to “the processes by which we influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express them” (Gross, 1998b). In other words, you can develop your ability to regain control of your emotions without them overwhelming you, to better respond to and express them.

But it’s important to note that regulating emotions doesn’t mean making them go away running from them, or pushing them down. It is rather about seeing them as allies to help you figure out why you feel the way you do. You can take a step back, acknowledge them, think about them and reflect on why you are feeling this way. Because when you name what’s wrong, you can tame what’s wrong.

Here are five strategies to develop your ability to regulate your emotions from psychologist and researcher James Gross of Stanford University.

1. Situation selection

Situation selection simply means choosing situations most likely to generate pleasant emotions. It means knowing which situations lead to undesirable emotions and choosing to avoid them.

For example, you can choose a longer route home from work to avoid traffic, and therefore the frustration it might cause.

2. Situation modification

This strategy can be used when you are already in a situation that is likely to make you feel an undesirable emotion. You use it to change or improve the emotional impact of the situation.

For example, when a conversation gets heated, you can stop the debate from degenerating and agree to disagree.

3. Attentional deployment

Attentional deployment, or diverting your attention, literally means changing your mind. It involves directing or focusing your attention on different aspects of a situation or on something completely unrelated.

For example, say you are afraid of needles, but in order to get your vaccine, you choose not to think about it and you concentrate your attention on a happy memory.

4. Cognitive reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal means changing your perception of a situation. It means thinking about things differently to change the way you feel. This may be by focusing on the bright side.

For example, you have just lost your job, and you choose to see this as an opportunity to do something new and explore new passions.

5. Response modulation

Response modulation occurs once you have felt the emotion. Rather than letting the emotion overwhelm and dominate you, you decide to change how you react to or express it. This reduces or increases the emotional impact.

For example, your colleague made a mistake that affects your project, which makes you angry in the moment, but you decide not to express your anger to avoid amplifying the emotion or creating discord.

Don’t forget that every emotion, even the most painful ones, deserves to be acknowledged with compassion, without dramatizing it or feeling guilty. Feeling emotions, whether pleasant or not, is part and parcel of good mental health.

***If your emotions are overwhelming, persistent or interfere with your daily activities, it is important to seek mental health support.***