The science of keeping your emotions in check (and how to put it to work)

Would our relationships (professional and personal) survive without emotional regulation skills? Probably...not.

Keeping emotions in check is harder than it sounds, especially given the changes and challenges we’re all facing due to the current situation with COVID-19. Fortunately, understanding the science behind how we regulate our emotions can also help us rein in our feelings when we need to.

What’s emotional regulation, anyway?

When we’re children (and we all are at least once), we respond to emotional events in our lives with abandon and unbridled intensity. Feeling hungry? Wail for mum. Big brother making a face? Scream with laughter. Dad says no? A temper tantrum should do the trick.

But as we grow into adults, we learn that it’s necessary to rein in our emotions, especially when it comes to our professional relationships. Controlling our feelings is a useful life skill, especially during the hard times at hand.

It takes time, but with plenty of practice, we learn to focus on what really matters and keep our emotions in check.

That said, sometimes things get off-kilter, and we’re left feeling stressed, worried or sad and (over)react in embarrassing ways that can endanger our careers.

Why is it so important?

Imagine if everyone you work with went around feeling their feelings the way small children (and sometimes teenagers) do? What if every time we felt life was unjust or we couldn’t have what we wanted when we wanted it, we screamed or cried or stamped our feet?

Grown-up humans controlling their emotions and teaching the next generation to do the same is a big part of what keeps business (and society as a whole) functioning smoothly.

Emotional regulation is that special something that stops us from lashing out at an innocent (or not-so-innocent) colleague when we’re frustrated, and from laughing at a text message that popped up during the CEO’s very serious presentation about last quarter’s profits via video conference.

Our ability to regulate (and evaluate) our emotions also helps us when it’s time to convince ourselves to do things that don’t result in immediate rewards. For example, instead of focusing on how tedious the project you’re currently enmeshed in for work is, you move your focus to how happy you’ll feel when your paycheck clears.

@headwayio via Unsplash

Can emotional regulation be learned?

As with so many other life skills, emotional regulation can be learned and practised. And it’s well worth the effort—working at controlling feelings has been shown to increase resilience, lower stress and improve mental wellbeing.

3 evidence-based strategies you can use to regulate emotions:

No one wants to overreact or lose their patience in an important meeting. Here are some tips to help you manage your emotions (and more importantly your reactions) in any setting.

1. Redirect your attention.

Known as attentional control, this is the ability to direct our attention to the things that really matter and, more importantly, ignore those things that aren’t so important but compete for our attention. Training our minds to focus better when distracted has been shown to help us worry less.

And concentrating on the positive over the negative aspects of our lives has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression. To put this technique to work in your day-to-day, try to take a break and spend a few minutes every morning or afternoon to move your focus to what’s going well by practising gratitude and celebrating your achievements (of all shapes and sizes).

2. Reframe your thoughts.

Cognitive reappraisal involves changing your perspective by reframing the meaning of an event and challenging your interpretation of what happened. Cognitive reappraisal is the heart of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an effective and fairly inexpensive form of treatment for many common mental health disorders.

If you’re interested in getting your thoughts in order using CBT, start by keeping a thought record—it’s as simple as taking a few moments to jot a recurring thought down on paper or with a mental wellbeing app like Foundations. This kind of journalling takes some effort, but it'll help you identify the repetitive thoughts (and feelings) that are distracting you from your work and replace them with less harmful thoughts over time.

3. Revise reactions

The ability to change an emotion after it comes up is called response modulation. The first step is recognising a feeling; let’s say anger. Step two involves revising your automatic or ‘gut’ reaction to it before you end up yelling at the dog for weeing on the good rug while your dinner guests watch with open mouths.

Finding the right balance is particularly crucial here—as we age, we learn to hold back our feelings and sometimes we take it too far. After all, we’re not robots. Expressing our emotions can be a good thing; improving our mental health and social connectedness.

But the outbursts and socially inappropriate behaviour that comes with the other extreme, letting loose (sometimes after suppressing too much), isn’t exactly desirable, either. Have the most trouble moderating angry reactions, especially during stressful times? A mindfulness for anger programme could help you learn how to observe how you’re feeling and modify your response before things get ugly.

What are some techniques you use to regulate your emotions in stressful situations? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.