The ABC's Of Emotion Regulation

Overreacting is normal. We all do it. One bad dinner and we're convinced our relationship is over. One snarky morning comment and your day at work is ruined. One compliment on our new shoes and we're suddenly a fashion icon (it goes both ways). But as time passes, we always look back at our initial reaction with a little bit of embarrassment, and a bit of regret.

We might be gradually realising that there is real value in being able to choose how we respond to stressful or difficult situations - to take a beat and decide whether to escalate things, or step back. Research has shown that learning emotional regulation skills can help us in a number of ways - firstly, in our relationships (since we tend to be more patient), but also for things like anxiety (as we learn how to self soothe), and even when we’re feeling down (as we have the tools to get ourselves back on an even keel). Best of all, emotional regulation isn’t rocket science - it is really just a set of skills that are designed to help us to slow down and tune into our body’s responses. Emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, jealousy, shame and frustration can be overwhelming at times, so it makes sense to target them and find ways of lessening their intensity. So - how do we put this into practice? The answer lies in the alphabet.

A. Let's start with acceptance. While the totality of our reactions are not always justified, the root of it is real. The key is to acknowledge the way you're feeling, why you're feeling it, and accept them before an irrational action is taken. According to doctor and psychologist Amelia Aldeo, "Emotions function like a compass, signaling rewards and threats in the environment. However, this compass is far from infallible. In fact, it is relatively easy for it to point us in the wrong direction." When we accept an emotion we’re having - whether it is shame, fear, grief or sadness - we make room for it, and stop struggling with it. Often a lot of our issues come from not the emotion itself, but the ways we try and not feel it - through food, alcohol, drugs or - more commonly - the numbing yet compelling things like online shopping and social media. Accepting that we’re sad, or angry, or lonely, means that we can then figure out what to do about it, rather than avoiding dealing with it.

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B. As in balancing emotions. Context is key, and being aware of both your emotional state and the situation will help you understand what reaction is most appropriate. It's okay to become upset when your partner forgets to empty the dishwasher, but going completely bonkers on them doesn't quite add up. Says Aldeo, "It's really important that we learn how and when to trust our emotional compass. Stated in more technical terms, we sometimes need to regulate our emotions so that our behavior does not end up at their mercy." Balancing emotions might take some time to learn, and one good way to get started is - after an argument or situation that didn’t go well - see if you can reflect back to what happened - considering what might have been a trigger (eg. feeling ignored or taken for granted) and some of the things you could have done differently in the situation (eg. calmly stated what was wrong, called a friend for support). The more we can take a ‘growth mindset’ in these situations, the more we can learn from these mistakes and figure out how we can manage strong emotions - and get our needs met at the same time.

Being aware of both your emotional state and the situation will help you understand what reaction is most appropriate.

C. Last but certainly not least is cognitive reappraisal, which is just fancy talk for doing a self-scan, an inventory of your thought patterns. For example, we can replace thoughts like "they hate me" with "they are frustrated and need time to cool off." It's not about changing the reality, it's about painting the larger picture so you have a broader (and more effective) perception. And once we take all of that into account, we can respond like the sensible, patient partner we want to be. Just like with balancing your emotions, cognitive reappraisal can take some time to get used to - but once you tune into certain thought patterns, they become quite easy to challenge. We often find that our minds have ‘stories’ that they tell us - whether it is the story that we are unlovable, or a failure, or a bad person. Everyone has these inner narratives about themselves (and they are never true), and once we recognise a familiar ‘story’, we can choose to tune in or out.

Adulting is full of complicated dynamics and sticky feelings, and it's never clearer than in relationships. Although full access to the range of the emotional spectrum can feel overwhelming at times, making sense of it all is actually pretty simple. In fact, it's as easy A-B-C.

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