These effective steps can help kids, teens, and adults alike learn and practice emotional regulation.
It's hard to know what to do when you feel overwhelmed with an emotion. Do you just accept it, ignore it, or try to stop the feeling?
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with feelings, but there may be steps that work better for you.
Here’s a little bit about feelings, emotional regulation, and what to do if you’re struggling with both.
Looking for resources for yourself or your clients? Skip ahead to our mental health worksheets and activities.
Recognize your emotion
Validate your feelings
Consider riding it out
Learn CBT skills
Learn DBT skills
Try cognitive defusion
Find a support network
Check out online resources
Be kind to yourself
What are emotions?
What are emotions, exactly? If you think about it, most of your feelings come from your body. For example, how do you know when you’re anxious? You probably feel pressure in your chest or butterflies in your stomach.
What about anger? You might clench your fists, or your face might flush.
We think of emotions in our mind because our thoughts and feelings are related. Thoughts may bring on a certain emotion, and a thought can change how we feel.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability to soothe feelings or control your reactions to them. For example, if someone becomes angry and starts punching a wall, we might call that dysregulated. If they’re able to lower the intensity of the feeling, that’s called emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation in kids
People of all ages struggle with regulating emotions at times. Younger kids, in particular, may have more challenges.
They’re having big feelings for the first time, and they’re not used to them. Other issues, such as tiredness or stressed out parents, can also contribute. However, people of all ages and in many different circumstances may struggle with their emotions.
Get professional help if you need it
If your emotional struggles (or your child’s) are to the point that they’re causing problems in your life, then consider looking for professional help. Talk to your doctor or find a therapist who can help. If you’re not sure where to start, visit here for therapy listings and immediate support.
How to flow with your emotions
Meanwhile, what can you do to help yourself when you’re overwhelmed with feelings? Here are some tips you can try, along with resources to support your efforts. The techniques may work best for kids, teens, or adults. But mostly it will depend on the individual and their needs.
1. Recognize your emotion
It’s common for people to not even recognize they’re having a feeling. They may also be used to minimizing their emotions, even when others can see them.
“I’m not angry!” “Why would I be stressed?”
So a good starting point may be to put a language to feelings. Just having about 5 to 10 feelings words can help you get a better handle of what’s happening. Connecting your feelings to your physical sensations (remember the butterflies) can also help.
Some studies show (UCLA, 2007) that simply naming an emotion can make you feel better. That may be because it connects the emotional and cognitive parts of your brain. That helps your brain know how to respond to a stressful situation.
This may not work for everyone, so notice your experience when you try it. Does labeling that you’re angry make you more or less angry?
If you need help with feelings words, visit here to check out our feelings activities and worksheets.
2. Validate your feelings
Therapists know that it’s important not to immediately dismiss or judge feelings. If you feel angry or sad, there’s a reason. However, most people grow up being taught to shut down feelings.
You might have heard (or said) things like:
“It’s nothing to be upset about.”
“You don’t need to get so angry.”
This advice comes from well-meaning people who want to make you feel better. Or, they may feel uncomfortable and want to feel better themselves. Either way, they are usually just reacting automatically.
But when feelings are dismissed, it’s called invalidating. It may make you feel confused or ashamed of what you’re feeling. We all want to know that our experiences are real, and if someone tells you you’re not actually feeling what you are, it can be really upsetting.
Most people also invalidate their own emotions. You might think:
“I shouldn’t feel this way.”
“I have nothing to be angry about.” “Whatever. I didn’t care about them anyway.”
When you push feelings away all the time, they could come back even stronger. When you continue to have emotions and thoughts crop back up, that means they still need to be resolved. Invalidating them is making it worse.
Instead, accept what you’re feeling and validate yourself. Here’s what that might sound like:
“Of course I’m upset. They were really mean to me.”
“It’s understandable I would be angry. That was important.”
“I’m disappointed that happened. It’s okay to feel sad.”
3. Consider riding it out
Once you recognize your feelings and accept them, what do you do next? It depends on your experience at the moment.
Often we push away feelings because we believe we can’t handle them. However, if uncomfortable emotions keep coming back, ignoring them won’t make them any easier to deal with.
If your feeling is uncomfortable, but you know you can take it, consider staying with it. For example, if you’re feeling anxious in a public setting, the feeling might pass if you just ride it out. If your feelings are hurt, allowing yourself to cry may bring some relief.
4. Try self-soothing
In some cases, riding out the feeling won’t work. If you’re about to punch your boss, it’s probably a good idea to calm yourself quickly. If a child is harming themself, they need more coping skills.
In such cases, it’s important to get professional help. Meanwhile, try some of these self-soothing skills. They can help calm your nervous system. After you experiment you may find one or two that work best for you.
Go for a walk
Play with clay or play-dough
Work on a hobby, like crafts
Take a deep breathe and let it out very slowly through pursed lips, as if through a straw
Take care of your physical needs, such as eating or taking a nap
Hold a soft stuffed animal or blanket
Choose a color, such as red, and look around for every red thing in the room
Soothing is a personal experience, so think about healthy activities that work for you. Find a quick and easy activity you can use almost anytime. One activity you might try is holding a grounding stone. Check out this kit to see how it works.
5. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the most effective techniques for the majority of mental health symptoms. It can help you with both short-term and long term feelings of anxiety and depression. It can also lower symptoms of other mental health disorders.
Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the moment, being aware of your environment and experience, without trying to change it. You can practice mindfulness through online videos and apps. But here are a few basic instructions to get started.
Bring your attention to the moment.
What are you physically experiencing? (For example, right now I’m noticing my fingers pressing on the keyboard.)
What other things do you notice? (There’s music playing overhead, and I can hear people across the room – I’m in a coffee shop. My feet feel tired.)
Don’t try to judge your experience, just notice it. Stay in the here and the now.
When I return to this moment, my brain gets a better grip on what’s going on and can chill out. There’s nothing dangerous happening right now, so I don’t need to be on edge. There’s no immediate threat, so I don’t need to physically react by punching a wall.
Get the idea? Many people learn mindfulness through purposefully sitting still and doing nothing. That’s a great place to start, but you can actually practice mindfulness at any moment, while you’re doing anything. That includes during any feeling you’re experiencing.
6. Learn cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills
CBT is a type of therapy that helps you feel better by recognizing and changing your thought patterns. Let’s get back to that bad boss. If you think, “I hate them! I can’t stand this job,” then you’re likely to stay angry and spend more and more energy not punching them.
However, if you can change that thought to something like, “This guy really stresses me out. I’m glad this job is just temporary. I’ll put in more applications tomorrow,” then you may well calm down. Your focus is now less on the anger and onto something more productive.
CBT is an entire practice on its own, and can help with all kinds of emotional and mental health struggles. You can learn more through several of our worksheets and games. Check them out here.
7. Learn dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills
DBT is a popular therapy which helps people develop skills they can continue throughout their life. It includes a series of skills that help with everything from anxiety to anger management. One of the four main skill categories is actually called emotion regulation.
Here are a few of the DBT skills that help with emotions:
Opposite action. With this skill, you act the opposite of how you feel. If you feel like throwing something, you walk calmly out of the room and turn on relaxing music. By changing your response so drastically, your feelings might change as well.
Paying attention to positive events. This may not help you in the exact moment you feel overwhelmed, however over time it might. It’s simply adding small, fun things to your day that might make you feel better. Think visiting your favorite store at the mall, or taking your dog for a longer walk than usual.
PLEASE. The PLEASE skill focuses on taking care of your physical body. Through maintaining your biological needs you’ll be able to deal with stress more easily. The acronym stands for physical illness (treating any you might have), eating healthy, avoiding drugs, sleeping well, and exercising.
If you’re already in the process of learning DBT, or have in the past, check out our DBT board game. It covers all four skill categories and helps you learn and practice skills.
8. Try cognitive defusion
Cognitive diffusion is when you practice separating yourself from your random thoughts. Just because you think, “I’ll never be able to figure this out!” doesn’t mean that it’s true. It may be true that you’re feeling frustrated, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually bad at what you’re working on.
By stepping back a bit from the random thoughts that cross your mind you can begin to react less in the moment. That may not instantly change your feelings, but it can help you make wiser decisions that are better for you, regardless of your emotions.
9. Find a support network
Everyone deserves support. And you deserve helpful, positive support. If you’ve had trouble forming and keeping relationships, and many people do, look for more organized groups. For example, find a support group in your area, a recovery meeting, or a book club.
Simply being around kind and enjoyable people regularly can make you feel better. And feeling better overall will help you with triggers and more difficult moments day to day.
If you find that your emotional struggles are leading to dangerous behaviors, such as thoughts of suicide or self-harm, then it’s important to get professional support. Visit here to find a therapist or other support program near you.
10. Check out online tools
We offer a set of tools that relate to mindfulness, coping skills, and emotions in particular. You can find them all in our entire store bundle, or browse our products to find the best fit for you.
11. Be kind to yourself
We all have inner critics that like to beat us up. They might tell you that you’re overreacting, it’s dumb to feel this way, or that there’s something wrong with you. They’re all wrong. Anything you feel is okay and normal. Regulating emotion is about finding balance, not about judging yourself or censoring what you feel.
University of California - Los Angeles. "Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 June 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070622090727.htm>.