So how do we stay steady in the face of a storm?
If Emotion Regulation is about mindfully, thoughtfully letting things impact us-- allowing ourselves to have feelings and reactions to something and responding in a way that is not only socially appropriate but also in line with our integrity and goals for ourselves-- how do we do this? How, with so much heartbreak, suffering, grief, and uncertainty around us do we respond without being overwhelmed by our own rage, sadness, and fear?
Our thoughts run our minds all over the place, and our feelings are stored in our bodies. By quieting our thoughts by slowing down our internal process and paying attention inside, we can begin to regulate our reactive nervous systems.
STEP 1: Acknowledge the facts, and find the feeling underneath.
These are tough social and political times, with reminders everywhere of possible threats to the safety of those persons and values that we hold close. While it is essential to stay informed, mobilized, and active, unchecked thoughts of things out of our control allow agitation and dysregulation to overcome us and wreak havoc on our insides. Ask the thoughts to move out of the way for a moment so that you can find what emotion is underneath them. You might say to yourself, "These are frightening times. I feel afraid for those I love, and very angry at the injustice I see around me."
STEP 2: Allow yourself to feel the feeling. Just for a moment. Notice what sensations arise in your body. Thoughts may come into your mind quickly, to protect you from discomfort. Remind the thoughts to move out of the way, just for a few moments.
When we stay with the feeling, even very briefly, we give it room to be felt. It needs to be felt in order to transform. Eventually and with practice, we become able to experience being with the feeling, alongside it, standing hand in hand without being knocked over by it. We realize that we have feelings, but we are not our feelings. Picking back up where we left off above, we might say to ourselves, "I feel scared. There is a tightness in my chest, like it's hard to breathe," or, "I feel angry. The knot in my stomach is getting bigger and bigger."
Stay with it. See what happens if you just allow it to be there. It might get tighter, stay as it is, or maybe shift into a loosening sensation. There might be additional feelings or sensations that come with it. You can follow them and go deeper or choose to move to step 3 at any time.
STEP 3: Offer the feeling some kindness in the form of your breath, or by putting a gentle hand on your heart.
Paying attention to the sensation of breathing, as air comes in and fills your chest, will bring you back into touch with what is happening in the space outside of you. Notice what has happened to the feeling. Is it still there? Maybe it has more to say. Or it's stepped back for a bit. Any and all reactions are okay.
Allowing your feelings to come and go, to rise and fall, reminds us of the tree in the large forest that we are a part of. You can stand strong, steady, and safe, while still taking in what is happening around you. You can bend and flex, without being knocked over.
The above steps can be tailored beautifully to support emotional regulation in children. If kids learn how to do it when they are young, they will be well-equipped to handle the ups and downs of the world with ease and grace. Children will need very hands-on help as they learn the three steps- which is a great opportunity to practice yourself while teaching your child, and build a family or school culture around regulation.
Please share any thoughts or feedback that you have on this, and contact me if you'd like to talk in person about how psychotherapy can help with emotion regulation.