When was the last time you lost your cool? Maybe a tough day at work took you down to your last nerve and your child couldn’t stop whining. If you find yourself raising your voice or saying something snappish when you’re under stress, you’ve come face-to-face with the challenges of emotion regulation. If you have a difficult time exercising restraint when you are angry or frustrated, emotion regulation is a skill you can build up with practice.
You’re angry. Picture a fork in the road. Do you take the road of reactionary ranting or do you take the serene one where you carefully choose your response? Recognizing that you always have a choice in how you respond—no matter how you feel—is at the heart of mastering emotion regulation. Responding appropriately is not about acting fake—it’s just keeping it together when you actually feel the opposite.
We all deploy these strategies every day—whether we are aware of them or not. Healthy regulation might show up as leaving something unsaid, walking away or choosing a neutral response. A lack of regulation can include road rage, verbal or physical aggression, or to a lesser degree, saying things you regret as soon as they leave your mouth.
“Emotion regulation means practicing something known as impulse control,” says Kris Lee, Ed.D., a professor at Northeastern University, behavioral science expert and author of Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World.
“When something happens, our brain’s automatic response is to be reactive. When our amygdala, the small part of our brain that regulates fight or flight is set off, we have to avoid taking the bait of our raw emotional reactions that make us want to overreact,” Kris says. “When we buy time, we then have access to the frontal lobes of our brains, where we have access to reasoning, better problem solving and perspective. We never have to take the bait of primitive emotions,” she explains.
Put another way, Dr. Kris says we can let the “first take” (the way we initially feel) pass us by and revisit triggers with a second take when we have our wits about us.
“Staying cool in the heat of the moment can be a challenge for even the most patient among us,” Kris says. “We all have different triggers that bring us from zero to 60, so knowing in advance what types of things can set us off can help us mentally rehearse and prepare a reaction that isn’t something we might regret later.”
For parents, it can be easy to lose your cool. “Think in advance of how to be able to step away and buy time before your words or behavior take on too harsh of a tone,” she suggests. “Have a go-to mantra like ‘it’s going to be OK’ or ‘this too shall pass’ to serve as reminders that your state of frustration won’t last.” You also can replay a past event where you lost your temper and decide on a better way to react next time.
“Oftentimes parents get burned out or emotionally overwhelmed, leading us to be more reactive and impulsive,” Kris says. “One of the best strategies to reduce reactivity and promote emotional regulation is engaging in regular, deliberate self-care.”
Here are nine ways to improve your emotional regulation skills:
Choose your mantra. Decide what you will say to yourself the next time your frustration bubbles up to the surface. Have one or two short mantras ready.
Talk with friends. Friends are support systems. A good talk can dissipate stress, make you feel understood and give you a good outlet to vent. “Find your tribe or community where you can share challenges, laughs and strategize on how to solve problems you have in common,” Kris says.
Practice self-compassion. How often do you give yourself a soft place to land in your mind? Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself as you would a best friend, and when you are kinder to yourself, you are kinder to others.
Exercise and eat nutritiously. Take care of your body and your mind will follow.
Write in a journal. Give your thoughts and feelings a safe place to come out.
Practice mindfulness meditation. Practice a nonjudgmental stance to things you are confronting. Be a neutral observer to your thoughts instead of labeling them and making rash decisions, Kris recommends.
Seek therapy. Ask for help. “Anger is often a sign of underlying anxiety and trouble with the skills of on-the-spot coping,” Kris explains. Speak with a professional to resolve old issues that are triggers.
Sleep. Monkey brain goes up when hours of sleep go down. Get adequate sleep—about eight hours a night. The power of a good night’s sleep is underestimated.
Build up your emotional repertoire. “Research shows we are capable of building a positive emotional repertoire and redirecting our energies to help us from being stuck in negative emotional states,” Kris explains. Practice positive communication skills. Rehearse desired reactions according to your unique stressors and triggers. “We all have different thresholds for coping and are dealing with different degrees of stressors and seasons of life. We can continually grow and improve our capacity for coping and reacting productively and positively,” she says.
Bottom line? “A more well-rested, exercised, nourished and emotionally connected person will have a greater sense of resilience and their brain will be less apt to be impulsively driven,” Kris says.