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What are emotions? Part 2 - So what is emotional regulation and how can therapy help?

Updated: Jun 5, 2023



What is emotional regulation?

Price and Hooven (2018) define emotional regulation as the ability to accurately detect and evaluate internal signals, i.e., interocept, accompanied by an emotional response that is in proportion, accurate and appropriate in light of the stimulus and effective for achieving overall and consistent well-being. It requires a coherent relationship with the self, in which there is effective communication between body, thoughts, feelings and behaviour. “It also implies that having the capacity to positively manage challenging sensations and related behavioural responses, such as behaviours or decisions to moderate, suppress or change signals toward a desired end” (Price and Hooven, 2018).


How can therapy help with this process?

Therapists often talk about “sitting” with emotion. What I, and I think they, mean by this is learning to accept our emotions, allowing space for all of their shapes, sizes, and colours without rushing to fix, change, or escape them.


Like the emotions themselves, often the first part of improving emotional regulation in therapy involves helping you to notice your emotions. To do this your therapist will reflect back the emotions they notice whilst listening to you talk. For example, “you sound angry”, “I can see that you are upset by that”. It might also involve developing your interoception skills by asking questions like: where do you notice that feeling in your body? Or this could take the form of a body scan, during a check-in; your therapist might start the session with this exercise and repeat it again at the end, to see whether you’ve experienced an emotional shift.


Once you had become accustomed to noticing your emotions in session, it can be beneficial to keep a diary in between sessions, noting what you are feeling and when, before moving to increasing your emotional range and literacy.


This step might require looking at an emotion wheel in session, and you might be encouraged to really get to know your emotions and describe them using more creative methods. For example, you might be asked: If that emotion was a colour, what colour would it be? If it was sitting on the chair next to you, what would I look like? Sound like? Say if it could speak? You might be invited to draw it or act it out.



Following improved emotional awareness and vocabulary, therapy may go deeper, exploring how emotions were discussed and navigated in your childhood, how beliefs about yourself and others originated and may have given rise to your behavioural patterns today. Where these patterns might be destructive, and the underlying emotions overwhelming, the focus of the work might be on the interplay between your thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and beliefs, increasing your emotional tolerance and exploring alternative coping strategies.


Another way in which emotional regulation might be worked on is by considering the extent to which your mental health is being driven by external forces, which are largely outside of your control. For example, it may be beneficial to review your social media use or the extent to which you are concerned about what others think of you.


I hope this has been a helpful review of what emotions are. I really believe that understanding what we are experiencing, facing it and not trying to run from it is the only way that we can start to change and is the true definition of ‘self-love’. If you think working through some emotions in therapy might be useful get in touch by visiting my website or emailing me at charlotte.sharpe.therapy@gmail.com



References

Price CJ, Hooven C. Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Front Psychol. 2018 May 28;9:798. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798. PMID: 29892247; PMCID: PMC5985305.



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