Emotion regulation is our ability to take in what is happening around us, apply our internal filters (based on our wiring- our innate temperament and unique nervous system- and our past experiences), and turn that into a socially acceptable, appropriate response that takes into account the experiences and reactions of those around us. Put in another way-- making sense of what's happening around you without losing your cool.
A child with emotion regulation difficulties might have a very hard time calming down when upset, as they may become fearful of and overwhelmed by their internal experience. They learn to act out or shut down in order to cope. These patterns may carry forward into adult life, when it might continue to be hard to manage stress. You might find yourself engaging in impulsive behaviors, trying to soothe yourself, find comfort, and keep your reactive internal response system in check. Or you might be going numb-- unable to feel anything because years of feeling overwhelmed have left you burned out and fuzzy.
When a storm comes, the trees that are brittle and dry, unable to bend and flex with the wind, are the ones that fall and crack. Trees with soft, pliable branches, and rooted but flexible trunks are the survivors. They look at the storm-- seeing it, facing it, letting it impact them. Bending gently when they can, while maintaining their form and integrity as part of a much larger network of roots, branches, and leaves. Regulation is like this. How much can we flex, bend, and grow while still remaining tethered to the earth beneath us? Can we see what is in front of us and respond with courage and clarity? Can we notice when we are feeling dysregulated-- out of balance-- and take steps to line things back up before we fall off course?
It takes practice and patience, and brings with it huge payoffs as it allows us to experience life more fully. Inflamed emotional responses tax our stress and hormone systems, increase anxiety and depression, and place strain on our health and relationships. A life that includes a practice of maintaining emotional regulation promises more appreciation, gratitude, and sense of well-being and connectedness. It allows us to give and receive love and support more fully, and keeps us standing steady and strong for the storms which inevitably come.
Stay tuned for future posts about tips and tools about the HOW of emotion regulation-- to help you practice this essential skill.