Essential to our survival, emotions can sometimes overwhelm us and have a negative impact on our lives, as well as on our health. Learning to regulate them allows us to live better.
Take a few steps back, your heart is racing and your breathing is deep. You were about to cross the road, but a car almost hit you. It is fear, an instinctive emotion that has immobilized you and prevented you from crossing the road. Like anger, joy or sadness, basic emotions have a very ancient origin in animal evolution, because their purpose is the survival of the species. They correspond to the rapid activation of a sensation by an internal or external stimulus. This mechanism results in a physiological response through the autonomic nervous system (adrenaline secretion, increased heart rate, and goosebumps) and a behavioral response through the voluntary nervous system (flight or fight response). When the stimulus goes away, the emotion disappears.
Usually, we can regulate our emotions, that is, to influence their onset, time and the way in which we express them. This system, conscious and unconscious, allows us to maintain good social relations.
When emotion persists
In general, emotions appear very quickly and disappear very quickly. When the emotion lasts, it can become a problem. For example, sadness experienced day after day can lead to depression.
Another problem that can occur is emotional deregulation. It manifests itself in an exaggerated sensitivity to stimuli, an increase in the intensity and frequency of emotions and a slow return to normal. Deregulation can lead to disproportionate behavioral reactions, such as violence, compulsive buying, excessive alcohol consumption or an unreasonable diet which can lead to detrimental consequences for oneself or others. The most common condition associated with emotional deregulation is a borderline personality disorder. People with it hide their true emotions until they explode. Insomnia is another factor that can lead to deregulation. It causes irritability, which changes the management of certain emotions, typically anger. In the long run, emotional deregulation has a real impact on health and can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Learning to regulate emotions
It can happen to anyone to experience deregulation when emotion is very strong. For example, when we divorce, we say and do the wrong things. That’s why we use a lawyer, which allows us to distance ourselves from the situation. In fact, one of the main tips for better emotional management is to get away from the stimulus. If you get angry with someone in a text message exchange and the other person no longer responds, it’s not worth writing anymore. Deregulation will be activated and will make things worse, with the risk of making us say things that we may later regret. It is better to do another activity to calm down, which diverts attention from the stimulus. One way to avoid deregulation is through meditation. By reducing our sensitivity to stimuli, we reduce the intensity of future emotions.
Another possible technique is mentalization, inspired by specialized therapies for borderline personality disorder. In an interaction with someone, it consists in imagining the mental states in which the person is to give meaning to his behavior and thus avoid reacting too quickly. For example, a friend suddenly keeps quiet and you get angry. The risk is to attribute emotion to him very quickly (he is angry). On the other hand, when you mentalize, you can imagine what state he is in (he can be disappointed, sad, wanting to rest) and what the impact is on you (I’m angry because I want him to react to what I say).
The closer we get to someone, the stronger the emotions are and therefore subject to deregulation. Being attentive to the emotions of others, as well as to your own emotions, allows you to better understand yourself and manage your emotional state.