BY DR. MARC BRACKETT, PhD
How are you feeling? If you’re like me, you’ve been answering that question a little differently lately… maybe with a pause… a sigh… or a deep breath. Today, I’m here to ask you to really think about that. Where have you been on the Mood Meter? How have you been feeling — the last week or two since many of our worlds have been turned upside down? And, I have another, perhaps more important question: what are you doing about how you’re feeling?
That’s the focus of today’s post. And it’s a timely topic. So many of us are experiencing a range of new emotions, feeling different than usual because of so many big changes around us. We may be easily distracted when working from home with our children or partners in the background, relieved to be with loved ones, exhausted from learning new technology and moving work online, fearful of germs entering our households, anxious about going into risky environments, content to be at home more, worried about our finances, or some combination of all of the above.
And once we know how we’re feeling, we can ask ourselves: how are we handling all of these emotions? What are our emotion regulation strategies? And are they working for us?
In the last several posts, we’ve discussed the first four RULER skills of emotional intelligence: how we recognize, understand, label, and express our emotions. So, now, we move to the top of the hierarchy — emotion regulation. It’s at the top because it’s the most challenging and complex skill. And we need to be good at identifying our emotions, understanding their causes, putting a name to them, and knowing the most helpful ways to express them in order to know how to manage them effectively.
So what is emotion regulation? The thing is: it’s really nothing entirely new. It’s about being able to handle our emotions in helpful ways. We’ve all been regulating our emotions from birth, when we sucked our thumbs for comfort or cried out in hunger or pain. Still, many of us go through much of our lives using emotion regulation strategies haphazardly. We subconsciously reach for a pint of ice cream or a bag of chips when we’re sad. We pour that extra drink when we are stressed… or even when we are feeling relaxed and want to sustain the feeling.
But the skill of emotion regulation is about becoming more consistent with our strategies — paying careful attention to the ones that work for us and that help us to grow, to develop and maintain healthy relationships, and to achieve greater well-being and our goals.
So, I ask you, what do you do to manage the range of emotions you experience? What have you been doing lately to handle the new feelings you’ve faced? What’s your “go-to” strategy when you’ve been at your toughest points in the last couple weeks? Has what you’ve been doing been helpful?
You may notice some of your strategies set you up for feeling better and being better able to deal with challenging feelings. When we eat and sleep well, move our bodies each day, have a strong social network in place, and have goals and meaningful work, we tend to be in a better place to manage annoyances, frustrations, and stressors in helpful ways. When we’re over hungry or full of junk food, over or under rested, getting too little physical activity, or lacking social connections or a sense of purpose, we tend to be more irritable and more likely to handle our emotions in unhelpful ways.
And then there are strategies that we use in the moment. There are unhelpful ones — when we reach for a cigarette, gossip behind someone’s back, or put off a much-needed conversation. And there are helpful ones — when we go for a walk, ask for a hug, or pick up the phone and engage in that difficult dialogue.
What’s particularly challenging right now is that our most constructive strategies may not be an option. So we must find alternatives. Just a couple weeks ago, I was managing my stress by going to yoga class. Now, “social distancing” means those in person classes are not an option, so I’ve been trying to go on more walks, find some virtual classes online, and build some stretches into my day. While I used to motivate myself to get through my to-do list by planning to meet a friend for dinner as my reward, I’ve been setting virtual meetings through Zoom or Facetime to chat over coffee or wine.
I’ve also been reminded that sometimes the best strategies are simply to breathe and to change the way I think. And fortunately, breathing and thinking differently are strategies that are available to us no matter what the circumstances. While I’m lying in bed running all of the worst-case scenarios of my family’s health and my retirement fund over and over in my mind, I can breathe slowly and deeply and remind myself of all the things I’m grateful for. When I find myself paralyzed by the uncertainty of everything, I can take a deep inhale and exhale to focus on the things I can control. I’ve also created a daily routine, which makes things predictable, so that I spend less time to let my mind wander about all of the uncertainties, or watch the news for more time than is necessary.
Most of us aren’t biochemists or microbiologists, so we can’t create vaccines or change the trajectory of viruses. But what we can do (besides staying home, washing our hands, etc. etc.) is tune into our inner emotion scientists. We can stop and analyze how we’re feeling and ask ourselves how we’re handling each emotion. We can ask ourselves if those things we do and think about are helpful, serving us, supporting our mental and physical health, and helping us to feel more connected to each other, even in these times when physical distance separates us. We also can be emotion scientists when interacting with our family members and our colleagues at work.
What new strategies can you try for regulating the range of emotions you are experiencing? What new things can you do? What can you do to have greater self-compassion this week? Who do you know who is in need of emotional support? What might you do for them? Feel free to share as a comment on this post or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. And stay healthy and connected!
With the wisdom of emotion,