Emotional Regulation Is Not Only For Children (How to Self-Regulate)


A rather upset individual complained to me that “emotional regulation is for children” among other words. Of course, many parents may know about emotional regulation for children especially if they give them “time outs” (I don’t mean in a punishing way), or have their infants trained to fall asleep on their own, particularly after waking up in the middle of the night.  Sleep training can help infants learn to regulate their own stress (Callahan, 2012).

But emotional regulation (or, emotion regulation, as psychology scholars call it) is also for adults. Nyklíček, Vingerhoets, & Zeelenberg (2011) wrote, “Regulation of emotions is essential for adaptive functioning” and that poor or dysfunctional regulation can lead to poor well-being and even somatic ailments (p. 2).

What does it mean to have adaptive functioning?

When a newborn comes into the world, it leaves the comfort of the mother’s womb often crying.  Imagine the baby wakes up in the middle of the night, forgetting she has left that warm, soft coziness of mom’s belly. She cries, triggered by the different environment.  Her parents leave her to figure out how to fall back asleep on her own and adapt to her new environment.  In order to adapt, the baby must self-regulate the stress that caused her to cry.

Likewise, when we as adults are in environments with triggers, healthy emotional regulation allows us to calm down quickly after an initial shock. Soon these triggers go away as we adapt to our environment.

Sometimes, our ability to regulate our emotions is blocked.  We may feel like we lose control in rage or frustration, or we may feel the need to maintain control.  We may get stuck in negativity, have trouble controlling thoughts, have no motivation, or have depression or some other recurring distress that takes a long time to clear.  Sometimes, we are unable to stop reacting to repeating triggers.  This is where Sensory Emotional Regulation can help.  The process can remove blocks that inhibit self-regulation.  It’s actually quite simple, and you can try it on your own.

How to Practice Sensory Emotional Regulation

When you are in a state of emotional discomfort, do the following:

  1. Make sure you are in a safe place. This can be in a chair, away from the sidewalk, in a bathroom stall, pulled over to the side of the road, or anywhere you won’t be in danger or feel worse than you already do.  However, your feelings should still be there, so don’t take too much time to find that safe place.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Pay attention to sensations in your body. If you have a hard time finding sensations, think about where you feel something in your body. Perhaps your breathing rate has changed or maybe you feel like you’re floating. Try to find three physical sensations.
  4. Don’t try to control the sensations and don’t focus on them too much.  Just observe them and let them do what they want. These sensations should change on their own.
  5. Keep your eyes closed and continue observing the sensations until you are calm. The evolution of your sensations should last no more than a minute. When you are calm, you can open your eyes.

That’s it.  But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the process.

IMPORTANT: Keep in mind that the sensations you feel might be uncomfortable.  But don’t let temporary discomfort stop the process.  Let the sensations continue to evolve.

If the above steps don’t work, there may be reasons depending on your situation.  But if you keep trying these steps in different situations, you may find the process will help and actually remove triggers.

You might wonder why I would share this process in an article when helping people through the process is what I do.  It’s impossible to help everyone for every problem.

If you try the process and find it difficult to find sensations, try some body-connecting exercises like body scanning or yoga. It also may be difficult to remove an emotional block. For those situations where help is needed is why I am available.

Nyklíček, I., Vingerhoets, A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2011). Emotion regulation and well-being. New York: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-6953-8

Callahan, A. (2012, March 30). Helping Babies Cope With Stress and Learn to Sleep [webpage]. Scienceofmom.com. Retrieved from https://scienceofmom.com/2012/03/30/helping-babies-cope-with-stress-and-learn-to-sleep/#more-1224

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