Published on January 24, 2022 Updated on April 6, 2023
We all experience highly intense emotions at some point in our lives. However, as powerful and overwhelming as intense emotions might seem, it is possible to overcome and regulate them. And it’s entirely within your power to learn how to do so. In this introductory post, we will share the basics behind emotions and emotion regulation. As we continue through the series, we will dive into more in-depth details around affect regulation.
Have you ever wondered why we can act so impulsively when we’re in love? Or felt like a totally different person when you were mad? Maybe instead you’ve had the experience of totally drowning in negativity and pessimism when something upset you?
The thing is; although we often presume that these common feelings/experiences are associated with what is happening to us, they are instead to do with how we regulate our intense emotions.
And even though we often attribute emotional matters to those of the heart, emotional responses are actually driven and regulated by our brains. The role of the brain in the management of emotion is quite complex. Still, this post is structured in such a way as to not overwhelm you, but rather introduce you to the basics of emotion regulation.
An emotion is a psychological, but also physical and behavioral response. For example; you’re watching a scary movie, and the main character is about to go into the one room that you know is dangerous. Your heart starts thumping, your palms get a little sweaty, and you can’t stop fidgeting in your chair thinking for screaming in your head: “Don’t go in there! Don’t go in there!”. These are both physical and behavioral components of the intense emotion you are experiencing – fear.
In a general sense, emotions arise from the interaction between cognitive (thoughts) and affective (emotions) processes . These factors are based on the environment, individual physical processes, behavioral skills, representations of ourselves and our reality, and even schemas .
The limbic system is responsible for the processing of emotions in our brain. Among the parts that are associated with emotions are the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala [4,5].
The thalamus essentially estimates whether the information we’re receiving from our environment is important. Consequently, it decides to either process or ignore that information.
Fun fact: Did you know that our sense of smell is the only information that our brain cannot choose to ignore?
The hypothalamus is a bridge between the body and the brain. It serves essential purposes, such as releasing hormones and regulating body temperature. This part of the brain is what makes it possible for us to feel our emotions (e.g. feeling fidgety when we’re nervous).
The hippocampus is generally responsible for memory, learning, and – in particular -converting short-term memory into long-term. This part of the brain allows us to remember even the most random facts from when we were still in school.
Finally, the amygdala plays a role in the experiences of feeling aggression, fear, anxiety, pleasure, and sexual attraction. In our earlier example of the scary movie, the amygdala plays a role in your experience of fear.
Sometimes, we may feel like our intense emotions completely take us over. It might even seem like our ability to be rational can be completely impeded.
Interestingly, because of this overwhelming sensation, emotions were once viewed as irrational impulses and were therefore perceived negatively. Later on, emotions were attributed an evolutionary explanation – as warning signals for situations that require our attention. This removed the stigma to some extent. However, even nowadays, people still sometimes view the display of intense emotions as a signal of a lack of self-control or immaturity .
According to these two views (that emotions are an irrational impulse or a warning signal), emotions are both regulatory and regulated. They signal that we are receiving important information, but also require a level of effort to avoid acting on them too impulsively.
This process is what we call emotion regulation. When that process is in some way disrupted or ineffective, we use the term emotion dysregulation .
Emotion dysregulation occurs when patterns of emotions interfere with our overall psychological and physical balance, such as when sadness leads to full-blown depression. Dysregulation can occur as an under-or over-regulation of emotion. For example, children with the avoidant attachment style typically over-regulate intense emotions. As a result, they do not display a strong reaction to separation from their caregiver. This lack of intense response does not mean that these children don’t feel anything, but rather that they bottle up their intense emotions.
A parent’s role in their child’s emotion regulation is essential on multiple levels.
First, a pattern of invalidating the child’s emotions can lead to the child developing emotional dysregulation . For instance, when parents do not tolerate or accept their child’s emotions, the child learns that their feelings are bad, and thus, they hide or suppress them. This creates a pattern of over-regulation of emotions.
Second, emotion regulation links strongly to attachment – which develops within the child’s relationship with their parents. Secure attachers, in general, are better at emotion regulation and problem-solving than their insecurely attached counterparts. This is due to the greater ease with which secure kids explore the unknown world around them. When a child feels safe to explore, they are more likely to learn adaptive skills. Insecure attachers are more likely to experience emotion dysregulation because they did not feel this safety and support growing up .
Furthermore, research supports the idea that parents with emotion dysregulation are likely to pass this on to their children . This would, indeed, be the case because the child learns (and later on, replicates) patterns of emotion regulation that are ultimately dysfunctional and lead to greater emotional distress.
Researchers have identified three main ways to regulate emotions: reappraisal, suppression, and acceptance .
Reappraisal involves changing how we perceive an emotional situation. This could be putting a positive spin on a triggering situation. For example, when an avoidant attacher feels triggered by their partner’s clingy behavior, they can try to look at their partner’s actions from a different perspective – as simply an indicator of how much their partner loves them.
Suppression occurs when we still feel and experience an emotion but block its behavioral expression. For example, a disorganized attacher may feel an excessive desire for their partner’s attention but may choose to refrain from acting on this need. They still feel the negative emotion but avoid reacting to it (e.g. by starting a fight).
These techniques have both pros and cons. Here are some examples.
On the one hand, reappraisal can be helpful in situations where an emotion-based behavior is potentially harmful to ourselves or others. For example, reappraisal can work well for an anxious attacher who is experiencing anxiety over their partner taking longer than usual to reply to their texts. Considering a different perspective – such as their partner being busy at that moment – may soothe the anxious attacher’s fear of abandonment. However, suppression can also work against us when applied inappropriately. For instance, an avoidant attacher might over-regulate their emotions to the point that their partner can no longer understand their emotional needs .
The last technique is acceptance. Emotional acceptance means we acknowledge the intense emotion we are experiencing without trying to change it or stop it. In a way, this is the absence of active emotion regulation. For some, this technique – often associated with mindfulness – leads to resilience and decreased negative affect .
As we can see, regulating intense emotions can be complex as the process operates individually depending on the person. Essentially, it all boils down to how our brains take in information from our day-to-day lives.
We all know that going through intense emotions is inevitable. So, it’s not about avoiding intense emotions. Rather, it’s about learning to deal with them in a healthy and efficient way.
If you would like to learn more on the topic of emotion regulation, stay tuned for updates on our next articles.
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