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How To Regulate Your Emotions So They Don’t Regulate You



Emotional self-regulation or emotion regulation is the ability to respond to emotionally intense situations in a manner that is socially acceptable, yet, still remain flexible enough to be spontaneous in your reactions and maintain the ability to delay spontaneous reactions when needed.

As adults, we must all learn to regulate our emotions, especially negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and frustration so they won’t drive our behavior or cause us to overreact in intense situations.  

We all have times when we allow negative emotions to control our thoughts and actions. Later, we often regret the things we say and do, wishing we had been more self-regulated.

In this post, we’ll be discussing negative emotions and how to take steps to improve our responses to emotional situations and conversations.

These steps will help improve your communications with others, as well as, improve mood, increase feelings of self-worth, and increase empathy for others.


Robin Overhears An Argument

Do you remember Robin at the Ferry Building Marketplace where she overheard a couple arguing?

Robin was working on a class assignment, observing how individuals interacted with each other using vocal elements and body language.

Robin witnessed and recorded an intense argument between a guy and his wife. She had just discovered that their bank account was overdrawn by $1000 because of gambling by her husband, unbeknownst to her.

Robin walked over to Jerry, after his wife, Hazel, stomped off.

What are emotions?

We often interchange the term emotions with the term feelings, but according to Neurologist Antonio R. Damasio, there is a big difference. Feelings emerge only when our brain registers a physical change in the body. Whereas, emotions are the initial, unconscious reaction to a stimulus.

For example, if someone embarrasses you, you begin to blush, when you get excited your heart beats faster if something scares you, your skin begins to pale. Emotions are strictly subconscious. Something triggers the body to react automatically or unconsciously. It is not something you can control.

On the other hand, according to Damasio, feelings occur only in the brain. When we become aware of the physical changes in our body we experience the feeling of embarrassment, excitement, fear or any other feeling.


Role of Emotions

Emotions play a very important role in your body. They stimulate an array of feelings, positive or negative, which allow and assist you in experiencing life. In essence, your emotions are your guidance system, your conscience. They make you who you are.

Your emotions are the reason behind your behavior. They get you moving. They also control your nonverbal communication automatically and unconsciously.

As we have discussed in previous posts, emotions communicate physically rather than verbally, giving you pertinent information about situations and people: affecting word choice, volume, pitch, inflection, the speed that is used, eye movement, facial expression, body movement, gestures, posture, eye contact.  

Emotions can give you erroneous information if they are connected to negative core beliefs.

Primary Emotions

My research has revealed an inconsistency in how psychologists view primary and secondary emotions. Dr. Neel Burton M.D. in Psychology Today states, “In the 20th century, Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) and Robert Plutchik eight, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites (joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation).”

A study by the University of Glasgow states that there are only four basic emotions that make up the primary emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. According to the documentation, they are still working on definitive proof to back up their premise.

My research has shown that most of the literature on emotions adheres to Paul Ekman’s definition of six basic or primary emotions. In Ekman’s book Emotions Revealed, he tells about his collaboration with the late Silvan Tomkins, who stated that we often react to an initial emotional (primary emotion) reaction, which gives us a secondary emotion. For example, we may become angry because of the helpless feelings associated with the pain of being emotionally or physically hurt.

Primary emotions are easy to understand. Basically, they are your initial reactions to external events. Sudden events may cause you to experience an emotion. For example, You may feel sad when you hear about someone being hurt or you are anxious about a presentation you have to give at work or school.

Secondary emotions are more complex because they are triggered by your reactions to and interpretations of your primary emotions. It is when you feel something about the feeling itself. Example: You may feel angry about being hurt or shame about your anxiety. Your secondary reaction or emotion is more intense.

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Benefits of Handling Negative Emotions

Most experts use the “down-regulation or self-regulation” method of emotion regulation. It is a process of willfully reducing the intensity of your emotions.

When you “self-regulate” your emotions you can communicate more effectively, which allows for both parties to get their needs met. When you are able to regulate your emotions you decrease conflict and increase intimacy in your relationships, which also improves your interactions with others.

When you experience a secondary emotion, it may feel overwhelming. Sometimes you feel like you want to hit someone or do something to get the feelings to stop.

The feelings themselves are not dangerous or destructive, but the action you take could be. Often you feel like you are fixing the situation, but actually, all you are doing is alleviating your intense feelings. The action you take just make things worse. People often lash out then justify their actions or blame the other person for making them feel the intense emotion.

Remember, the other person didn’t ’cause’ your feelings; they are yours, and they are triggered by your own interpretation.

Repressing your emotions is also not a good idea. Repressed emotions make it more likely that you will act on them later at which time they may be more intense because of the build-up of the emotions.


Allow yourself to feel all your emotions, but resist acting on them while you’re upset.Laura Markham Ph.D.

    1. Feel The Emotion. Accept that you have them and you’re feeling them.
    2. Choose The Opposite Action.  Choose to do the opposite of what your impulses are telling you to do. This robs your anger or other emotion of power.
    3. Don’t Get Attached. You aren’t angry, you are feeling angry. The feelings will go away. Notice them. Acknowledge them. Let them go.
    4. Don’t take it personally. The feeling it created will go away.
    5. Anger is Defensive. Get in touch with the initial emotion underneath, then the anger will melt.
    6. Don’t Act. If it’s not an emergency, resist the urge to act. If you feel an urgent need to take action you are in fight or flight mode.
    7. Stop!! Breathe!! Sit and breathe. As you do the feelings will begin to evaporate.
    8. Don’t Jump To Conclusions. Don’t draw any conclusions when you’re angry. Do the opposite. Think about something restful and relaxing.
    9. Identify. When your emotions are hijacked don’t try to work on the real problem. Wait. Breathe. Identify the underlying primary emotion.
    10. Assess the information. Use the emotions as information to be able to resolve the real problem.


Robin and Jerry

Jerry continued to sit with his head down ignoring Robin.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but I overheard your argument with the woman you were with. Is there anything I can do to help you?” Robin asked.

He shook his head but didn’t say anything.

Robin sat on the bench across from him, remaining quiet. Eventually, he raised his head and looked at her, “You’re still here? I figured you’d left also. Everybody does sooner or later.”

“Why do you say that?” Robin asked looking at Jerry who was looking at the floor again.

“I’m just a big screw-up,” he said. “I’m a throw-away.”

“No you aren’t,” another voice said.

Jerry looked up, “What are you doing here? I thought you were gone.”

Robin looked at Hazel and got up and slowly walked away, leaving Hazel and Jerry to work things out.

“I’m really sorry. I didn’t follow my self-regulation procedure. It really took me by surprise. I’m also sorry I broke your phone. That one’s on me,” she said.

Hazel sat down on the bench where Robin had been.

“I’ve been trying to follow my self-regulation procedure before I do something like throwing your phone. I was instantly so angry that I couldn’t self-regulate soon enough. I walked through the Marketplace which helped me get ahold of myself. A thousand dollars is a lot of money and now your phone.

Hazel paused taking Jerry’s hand, “I’m really scared. I know what the guys at the game are capable of. I saw, what was his name, Sam, wasn’t it, after they worked him over. It took him months to recover. I’m surprised they didn’t kill him”

“They wouldn’t kill him. They wanted him to hurt,” Jerry said. “I’ve already taken care of the money. I got it from my dad, but I just put it in the bank. If you check now, you’ll see it’s okay. I was so afraid to tell you. I know how angry you get. I’m so sorry. I made a deal with my dad. I will have to work it off, plus go to Gambler’s Anonymous, plus counseling. I guess he figures I won’t have time to gamble.”

“Is that all?”

“No, he won’t ever bail me out again. That’s almost worse. To have my dad just walk away.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hazel said. “Now we have a phone to pay for too. I thought I could learn to self-regulate my anger, but I guess I can’t, not when it’s really tough. Maybe I need to go to a group that will hold me accountable also,” she said.


Emotional self-regulation is not easy. It is a learning process. If you are a person who stuffs your emotions down inside, like many of us are, at some point they explode so much force you may not be able to regulate them.

Some people may need therapy to help them be able to learn self-regulation. Meditation, mindfulness, stress management, and anger management may also be options to consider. These other techniques can also help to improve your mood, increase your feelings of self-worth, and increase your ability to extend empathy.

There are many techniques in helping to regulate your emotions. Most experts advise “self-regulation” or “down-regulation”, which is willfully reducing the intensity of your emotions. A person who is grieving can down-regulate his sadness by intentionally thinking of happy or amusing thoughts. If a person was anxious about a situation she could think about something totally different.

If a person suffers from depression, she could “up-regulate” her emotions to keep from crashing with an anxiety or depression attack.  

Also, the Bible warns us to guard our hearts against emotions such as fear, worry, anxiety, anger, unforgiveness, jealousy, grief, guilt, and more.

John 8:31-32 ESV Jesus said, “If you abide in my word…and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Psalms 34:14 “…seek peace and pursue it.” 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…

We don’t always see our emotional responses or notice our feelings until they explode. I know, I for one, have a habit of stuffing my feelings until something triggers them.

I am learning to prayerfully turn situations over to God, to abide in His Word and receive a generous helping of His peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace, joy, and love. I’m seeking God’s help to share these with others using His wisdom to approach situations and reach constructive solutions, thereby, making positive changes to help me regulate my own emotions.

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