Difficulty with Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation refers to all the things an individual does to influence when they have emotions, how intense these emotions are, how long they last, and how they are expressed (Gross, 2002). An important aspect of emotion regulation is the ability to calm oneself after experiencing intense emotions. Other aspects of emotion regulation include 1) the ability to shift attention away from the things that are likely to kick up intense negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, shame, and anxiety; 2) the ability to inhibit acting on an emotion when desired, and 3) the ability to decrease the intensity of emotions.
We are not born knowing how to regulate our emotions. Ideally, we are taught how to regulate emotions as children by observing our parents effectively handle their emotions, having our parents acknowledge and assist us with our emotions, and by receiving the message that our emotions make sense given the context. Individuals with difficulties regulating their emotions are often sensitive to emotional triggers in their environment, react intensely to those triggers, and then have trouble getting back to their baseline emotional state. To further complicate matters, these individuals may also have difficulty accurately identifying their emotions, completing tasks when upset, and tolerating emotions instead of acting in an out of control manner. These difficulties in emotion regulation are sometimes referred to as emotion dysregulation. Emotion regulation difficulties can make life pretty chaotic, creating problems in relationships, work, and other areas of their life. In efforts to escape or decrease intense negative emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety, individuals may develop other problems such as anger management difficulties, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, overspending, or self-injurious behaviors.
How are Emotion Regulation Difficulties Treated?
Since emotion regulation is conceptualized as a set of skills that can be learned, treatment focuses on teaching these skills in either individual or group therapy. The emotional regulation techniques taught include the accurate identification of emotions as they are happening, learning how to tolerate emotions, learning how to change emotions, and developing the ability to be less vulnerable to emotional cues in the environment. Mindfulness--the nonjudgmental awareness of present experience, helps clients to develop emotional awareness and acceptance. Cognitive therapy techniques are utilized to help individuals identify their inaccurate beliefs about emotions (e.g., that emotional states will never end or that expressing emotions means they are weak), and to evaluate these beliefs. Therapy also teaches how certain behaviors increase the likelihood that the individual will be more strongly emotionally affected by their environment. For example, the importance of a balanced diet, sleep, and exercise is also addressed. In treatment, individuals work collaboratively with their therapist to better understand their impulsive and/or problematic behavior patterns and to learn new behaviors that will be most helpful to them in developing the ability to regulate their emotions.