Everyone can feel out of control sometimes, but some people have more trouble than others. What is emotion regulation and how can we improve??
How healthy people learn emotional regulation
We learn several different ways:
- observing people around us regulate,
- by having our feelings validated
- learning that it is safe to express feelings
- this is an area where boys are particularly invalidated
- being taught appropriate ways to respond to those feelings
- Also, temperament is important: some people are more sensitive than others
What do emotion regulation problems look like?
As Marsha Linehan describes it, there are two parts to emotion regulation difficulties: emotional vulnerability and poor emotion modulation.
Here is a chart from a previous post. You can read more in depth about it there, but briefly, the red line shows someone who is far more emotionally vulnerable.
- High sensitivity to emotional stimuli: gets upset by things other people don’t
- Very intense response to emotional stimuli: is more upset by things than most others
- Slow return to emotional baseline: takes a long time to feel calm again
Though it is not named in the DSM, I think this model of emotional vulnerability is helpful in understanding what happens to emotions with a lot of mental health issues, including when we’re grieving or adjusting. The range varies, but sometimes we’re more labile for a lot of different reasons.
Emotional modulation is the ability to interact with, rather than be controlled by, our emotions. There are four skills in emotion modulation:
How DBT teaches emotion regulation
The overarching theme in how DBT approaches emotion regulation is validation: all emotions are valid, but from there we have some choices in what we do with them, and those choices can impact how painful our emotions are. Here’s the flow:
- Facts about emotions and how they work
- Obstacles to changing emotions
- Learning to be less vulnerable (the blue chart)
- Increasing mindfulness
- Introducing more positive experiences
- Fake it til you feel it (or taking opposite action: for example, if you dislike someone, being extra nice to them)
This section has a lot of great activities. Here is one of my favorite exercises:
Myths about emotions
What’s interesting about many of the myths is that they appear screamingly obvious to many people at first—yet it’s usually really easy to think of a time that we acted as though it was true. For example, try to think of a time that you responded to a situation as though:
- There is a right way and a wrong way to feel about it
- Some emotions are really stupid
- Being emotional means being out of control
- Letting others know I’m feeling bad is weakness
If you’re like me and most people, you have at some point said “I shouldn’t feel this way” or apologized for being emotional about something totally reasonable. In our culture, it’s easy to buy into myths about emotions and people who have been invalidated a lot have picked up extra.
The complex trauma connection
Interpersonal trauma is especially invalidating, whether it’s verbal abuse, physical abuse or sexual abuse, the message is that your rights and needs aren’t valid, and children in particular learn to shape their needs to their environment, and effectively suppress their emotions.
This post is part of a series on how DBT is helpful for complex trauma. Dialectical Behavior Therapy address issues of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance. Follow the links to learn more!