In the previous blog, we discussed strategies to manage our emotional reactivity. Although similar, regulating emotions isn’t quite the same as managing how we react emotionally. Whereas managing emotional reactivity works like a light switch that can dim the frequency and intensity of our emotional reactions, regulating emotions, on the other hand, involves altering our emotional responses to situations. We might consider regulating emotions as our ability to adjust our own emotional states. Sometimes we do this by increasing our positive emotions, whereas other situations are better handled by decreasing our negative emotions. How? We change our thoughts and behaviours associated with that specific situation, which then alter our emotions for that situation. When we use healthy strategies to regulate our emotions, we feel better about our circumstances, recover faster, and cope more effectively.
When was the last time you looked inward and engaged in a deep self-reflection? In other words, when was the last time you evaluated your thoughts, emotions, and mental processes in an objective manner? Many of us are busy with our lives, and with so many things outside our bodies demanding our attention, we don’t often think about looking inward. Yet, self-reflection can be a reality check to understand who we really are, what we value, and why we act the way we do. These self insights are often key to enhancing our resilience. How would we benefit from engaging in self-reflection? First of all, we may not always know why a particular situation evokes certain strong emotions. When we self-reflect, we get to understand where we are coming from and why we respond to that situation the way we do. For instance, suppose a person tends to have negative emotions in response to a particular event. In that case, a deeper understanding of the self can help this person control their emotions and develop healthier ways to deal with that situation. Another benefit of self-reflection is gaining a different perspective. We don’t always get to open the hidden doors inside our minds that keep the secrets of our subconscious. Once we peek inside, the revelations we gain can grant us a new way of seeing things. Moreover, this newfound knowledge and perspective may help us become kinder and more understanding toward ourselves as well. So, how do we self-reflect? The key is asking ourselves the right types of questions. For instance, asking ourselves questions that start with “how” or “what” might tickle our curiosity and enable us to find accurate answers. In contrast, asking reason-focused “why” questions can generate false explanations, bring up our insecurities, or needlessly blame ourselves for things in the past.
Self-Reflection In the early stages of a relationship, whether with a friend or a romantic partner, we ask and answer lots of questions to get to know each other. Yet, we rarely ask ourselves questions that would let us get to know ourselves better. Here is a list that can help you get started with self-reflection.
● What worries me most?
● How do I deal with problematic situations?
● What do I want most in life?
● What is my plan to reach my goals?
● What are my talents?
● What talents and skills do I want to develop?
● What makes me uncomfortable?
● How do I deal with uncomfortable situations?
● What do I find humorous?
● How many friends do I trust with my secrets?
● What are the five things I can’t live without?
● How do I define success?
● What does love mean to me?
● How do I show my love?
● What do I expect from my relationships?
● What do I expect from my career?
● What are the five things I wish everyone knew about me?
● What are the three adjectives that describe me?
● What energizes me?
● What drains my energy or positivity?
● What is one thing I will never do?
● What is one thing I will never give up?
Note: This is not an exhaustive list, and there are many other questions you can ask yourself to understand yourself better. Yet, this list may give you an idea about the types of questions you might want to ask yourself. Self-reflection allows you to get to know yourself. Therefore, you become better equipped to handle your emotions, which can increase your resilience.
Identify Your Emotions
We humans have a wide range of emotions that are evoked in response to what is happening around us. For instance, some events make us gloomy or angry, and others make us feel joyful, amused, or bored. Whatever it is that we feel, emotions enable us to understand our circumstances and are essential for getting to know ourselves better. Imagine one of your friends made a rude remark about you and your brother in front of many others. You might feel angry with your friend. As a result, you may react by calling them out on their behavior. However, your brother may feel sad and react by crying in the bathroom. You can see how our emotions make us who we are. Generally, the formation of emotions about a circumstance is not a conscious process. We don’t tell ourselves to feel annoyed, blessed, happy, etc.; these emotions arise naturally without effort. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our emotions. After all, we can’t regulate our emotions and therefore our subsequent actions if we don’t know whether we are, let’s say, irritated or sad. Two skills that help us identify emotions are: emotional granularity and emotional clarity. Let’s discuss these skills in more detail.
Emotional granularity is a relatively recent concept which we define as our ability to distinguish emotions from one another (Wilson-Mendenhall & Dunne, 2021). A person with low emotional granularity may have a vague sense of what type of emotions they feel. Their emotional descriptions may be generic and global, such as sad vs. happy. On the other hand, people with high emotional granularity can zoom into their emotional landscape and distinguish between discrete emotions using specific descriptions, such as annoyed vs. frustrated. Scientists suggest that high emotional granularity enables individuals to better cope with their emotional experiences (Tugade, Fredrickson & Barrett, 2004). So how can we improve our emotional granularity? The most prominent expert on emotional granularity, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, suggests learning as many new words as possible by reading books outside our comfort zones or listening to thought-provoking content (Barrett, 2018). If you find that approach too slow, here is an exercise you can try.
Improve Your Emotional Granularity In this exercise, you are given two lists of specific emotions, one for negative emotions and one for positive emotions. You will use these lists to find differences between similar emotions.
● Select five emotions from each list, preferably at random.
● For each selected emotion, identify others from the list you feel are similar and form emotion groups (Notice that these lists are not comprehensive. There may be other emotions you can think of while generating your emotion groups). ● Think about the nuances you can use to distinguish the emotions in each group.
If you can’t see how these emotions might differ, feel free to use a dictionary to find out the differences in their definitions.
List 1 - Negative Emotions
List 2 - Positive Emotions
Understanding the differences between emotional descriptors is essential to be able to distinguish them and identify our emotions with high granularity. When we find out how similar descriptors differ from one another, we might be able to identify them with better accuracy in the future. If you find this exercise useful, you might consider selecting new words from the list and repeating the steps.
Emotional clarity is a concept somewhat similar to emotional granularity. Yet, in this case, we are not only talking about how clear we feel about the specific emotion we feel but also why we feel it (Boden & Berenbaum, 2011). In other words, emotional clarity involves understanding the root causes of our emotions. Especially in the case of negative emotions we feel, understanding where these emotions come from is critical to be able to change the circumstances that evoked them. Similarly, if we don’t understand why we feel a particular emotion, we can’t enact effective strategies to regulate it. One way we can achieve emotional clarity is through increased mindfulness. That’s because when we are mindful, we are aware and accepting of our inner workings. It becomes easier to understand why we experience the emotions we feel after certain events. We will talk more about that next.
Mindfulness is one of the most popular topics in positive psychology, and it can be used to regulate emotions, as well as to induce calmness and relaxation. Due to its growing popularity, you might have heard about mindfulness in various contexts, such as mindful parenting, mindful eating, mindful spending, and mindfulness meditation. Although mindfulness might have grown in popularity in the last few decades, it isn’t a new concept. We define mindfulness as being fully present in the current moment without any judgments. When we practice mindfulness, we pay attention to our experiences, emotions, and thoughts. We observe what is going on in our surroundings with an accepting mind. Although mindfulness is something we are all capable of, most of us don’t practice this skill as often as we need it, if at all. One reason for this is avoidance, as mindfulness involves becoming aware of all kinds of experiences, thoughts, and emotions, which you then acknowledge and accept without judging. And sometimes, what you become aware of is unpleasant or bitter. Yet, the more we practice mindfulness, the better we get at identifying our emotions. Another reason we might be hesitant to practice mindfulness is being unsure about how to break down mindfulness into its functional components. But what are these components? Let’s consider the definition of mindfulness one more time to extract its core concepts. Earlier, we defined mindfulness as being fully present in the current moment without any judgments. Two concepts stand out in this definition: awareness and acceptance. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is happening in and around us at the moment. Moreover, when we practice mindfulness, we accept our thoughts and emotions without judging them. Let’s discuss these two concepts in greater detail.
Awareness involves monitoring what is happening around us but also what we think, feel, and believe at that moment. Without awareness of our experiences, it may be challenging to understand why they feel a specific emotion. Moreover, if we are unaware of our emotions, we might not be able to understand whether or how to regulate them. In contrast, when we know our emotions in a specific situation, we might find it easier to find healthy strategies to regulate them. Moreover, awareness can also help us determine how to deal with our emotions. We use awareness of our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses in this case. For instance, if we know that we are generally more successful at using one coping mechanism, we might want to use that coping mechanism instead of another one we failed at before.
Once we are aware of our emotions, the next step is acceptance. Accepting our emotions doesn’t mean that we should be okay with whatever we experience and do nothing to address them. Instead, emotional acceptance involves understanding that we feel a specific emotion. In other words, accepting our emotions means validating their existence without judging. Once we accept our emotional experiences, we might be able to regulate them better.
Suppose it was your significant other’s turn to fold the laundry. Yet, you come home from a long day at work and are greeted by a mountain of clean laundry on your bed. You might feel frustrated and begrudgingly sift through the pile to find your favorite pair of comfy pants. If you aren’t mindful of your experience, you might not realize or accept that you’re frustrated or end up judging yourself for being frustrated. As a result, you might say regrettable things to your partner or withdraw from any interaction with them for the rest of the night. Yet, if you know and accept your emotions, you might be able to address them in more effective ways, such as by discussing your frustration and its underlying reason with your partner.
Try Not To Overthink
It Thinking is an amazing skill that allows us to understand situations, solve problems, make future plans, and imagine and create new things. Yet, as with everything else, thinking has its limits too. Sometimes we overthink a certain issue without coming up with a satisfactory solution or conclusion as if our minds are stuck processing it. And when we overthink, we might ruminate about something in the past that we can’t change, fixate on flaws and mistakes, or worry about an upcoming event or how other people perceive us. As a result, we might enhance negative feelings and lower our mood (Segerstom et al., 2000) and feel anxious (McLaughlin et al., 2007). Moreover, overthinking may even impact our sleep (Pillai & Drake, 2015).
Overthinking can generate a vicious cycle of thinking and emotional arousal; the more you think about something, the more you might feel a specific emotion, which causes you to think about that issue even more. This is especially true for negative emotions. The more you think about an episode that made you upset, the more upset you get, and the more you keep ruminating about it. If you find yourself overthinking in a never-ending cycle, here are a few suggestions to try.
● Relax. Using a relaxation technique, such as a breathing or visualization exercise, can create a break in the cycle of overthinking and ease the mental tension associated with it.
● Change of scenery. Sometimes all we need is a change of scenery to distract ourselves and break the cycle. You might want to take a brief walk outside or run some errands to remove yourself from reverberating thoughts.
● Put in perspective. If you find it hard to stop to think about something, you might want to try to see it through a different lens. If your emotion involves another person, try to see the issue from their point of view. Alternatively, you may ask yourself whether this issue will matter to you next week or next year.
● Focus on solutions. Another thing you can do when you can’t stop thinking about something is to focus your thoughts on finding a satisfying solution. For instance, if you are thinking on and on about an issue that has agitated you, you might want to work out how you can avoid finding yourself in a similar situation.
● Talk to someone. Talking to someone you trust can allow you to gain their perspective. Moreover, their insights can help you reframe the situation, better understand your emotions, and come up with constructive ways to address the issue at hand.
Sometimes we aren’t consciously aware of our emotions. Other times we might be struggling with making sense of our experiences. Then we find ourselves replaying the same experience inside our heads over and over. We might even lose sleep as we toss and turn in our beds at night. These unprocessed emotions keep our bodies in a state of a continuous fight-or-flight response, harming us from the inside out.
Many people find keeping a journal helpful in processing their emotions. Even if you have never used a journal before, there is a specific type of journaling called expressive writing that may help you process and regulate your emotions and also helps improve your relationships and general well-being (Lepore et al., 2002; Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Romero, 2005). Moreover, expressive writing can allow better identification of thoughts, feelings, and emotions and give us a new perspective (Niles et al., 2016)
Ready to try expressive writing but don’t know what it is all about? Expressive writing typically involves focusing your attention on a stressful event and putting your thoughts and emotions on paper. Focusing on adversities and the negative emotions they evoke may seem counterintuitive. Yet, it helps regulate emotions in many ways. First, it allows you to get everything off of your chest (and mind), which is thought to promote emotional habituation (Lepore et al., 2002). In other words, it removes the novelty aspect of the event and attenuates your emotional reaction to it. Second, putting your feelings and emotions into words may help you improve your emotional granularity. That way, you can be specific about what exactly you think and which emotions you feel. Next, it can also increase your emotional clarity. Therefore, you might also understand why you feel these specific emotions. Finally, it helps you analyze the whole picture and gain insight into what lies at the heart of the problem.
Expressive Writing For this exercise, you will need a notebook or a writing pad and a pen or a pencil. Alternatively, you can also use a computer if you prefer typing. We recommend doing this exercise for three to five consecutive days, and each session should take between 20 and 30 minutes. Here are some tips for successful expressive writing.
● If there are multiple experiences bothering you, pick only the one you want to write about before starting. That way, you can focus on resolving one issue at a time.
● Write at a time and place that you will not be disturbed.
● Remove any distractions. For instance, you might want to silence your phone.
● You can set up a timer so that you don’t need to look at your watch.
● Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, runoff sentences, or spelling.
● Don’t write to an audience; write only for yourself.
● Write your deepest thoughts and emotions about the situation.
● Explore how you might want to move forward or what you can do in a similar situation in the future.
● If possible, identify what you have learned from this experience or are grateful about.
● Write continuously for the entire session. Don’t take breaks.
Note: Reflecting on challenging or traumatic experiences can be overwhelming and should be explored with the guidance of a therapist or other mental health professional. We recommend doing this expressive writing exercise only with less-intense situations and emotions. If at any stage you feel this exercise is too intense or difficult, please discontinue it right away.
Regulating our emotions involves altering or adjusting our emotional responses to situations. There are various steps we can take to regulate our emotions. Self-reflection allows us to look inward and evaluate ourselves. Identifying emotions clearly and with granularity is also crucial to understanding what we feel. Mindfulness allows us to become aware of our emotions without judgment. We should also avoid overthinking and ruminating about events or our emotional reactions. Finally, expressive writing can help us process our emotions and allow us to understand our emotions at a deeper level. When we regulate our emotions with these healthy strategies, we may be able to cope with adversities more effectively and become increasingly resilient.