What Is Emotional Regulation and How Does It Work?

What Is Emotional Regulation and How Does It Work?


Have you ever wondered why people have different emotional responses to a situation? Everyone’s emotional regulation is different. Find out what it is and why everyone is unique.

Emotions are a part of the universal human experience. Everyone has them. But some people are more emotional than others.

Especially when it comes to stressful situations.

We learn to regulate our actions and reactions as children. Our emotions, thoughts, and reactions to experience are all connected. Everyone’s responses are different, based on what they learned growing up and their experiences as an adult.

But how much you’re able to temper your response to certain events may be a measure of your emotional regulation.

Here’s what you need to know about emotional regulation.

What Is Emotional Regulation and Why Is It Important?

An emotion is an internal response to an external event. So, how does emotional regulation fit in?

Emotional regulation is the process of determining the duration, intensity, and manifestation of your emotional response.

In essence, you feel your emotions as they come. But an emotional regulation response is the cog that moves that wheel.

What is emotional regulation in child development?

As children, we aren’t born with a sense of emotional regulation. It’s something we learn as we grow up. And parents play a huge role in how well a child learns to regulate their emotions.

For example, when a child throws a tantrum, this exhibits a lack of control. And the child must then depend on their parents to exert that control for them.

However, this model of emotional regulation changes quickly as toddlers become self-aware.

Children learn their place in their world and who they are as individuals. These are the foundations of emotional regulation. They take numerous cues from the adults around them, but soon learn what’s expected and appropriate given the circumstances.

Emotional stress: The internal battle

Do you remember the last time you felt severe emotional stress? And keep in mind that there’s a big difference between physical stress and emotional stress.

What does it truly mean to feel “stressed out?” The “stressed out” definition has changed in modern society because the way we perceive and negotiate stress is quite different than what it once was.

Emotional control goes a long way in managing your response to a situation. Emotional control helps you keep impulses in check. Instead of yelling at your toddler, you exercise patience. Instead of blaring your horn in frustration at the driver ahead of you, you take a deep breath and try to relax.

However, when you’re stressed out, your emotional control may slip. And the more it happens, the more your emotion regulation may change. One angry outburst can lead to another, and before you know it, you’re an emotional wreck.

Dealing With Difficult People: The Ultimate People Skill

It’s easy to deal with pleasant people, right? But it’s the difficult people that challenge our emotional control.


Difficult people challenge our emotional regulation.

Maybe you have a co-worker that’s difficult to talk to. Maybe they don’t take suggestions well and react with aggression. Or maybe they’re dismissive.

You may find yourself wondering:

  • “Did I say something wrong?”
  • “Maybe I just caught them at a bad time?”
  • “They probably didn’t mean it the way I took it.”

These thoughts breed feelings of anxiety, doubt, and insecurity. This may also trigger physical reactions. You may feel tired, lose your appetite, or get a headache.

Finally, you may feel compelled to take action about these feelings.

In this case, the negative emotional cycle with a difficult person leads you to dwell on the encounter. And unfortunately, if you do it often enough, this cycle soon becomes your method of regulating your emotions. 

A previous negative experience simply feeds into your next experience. And it may only serve to solidify the presence of even more negative thoughts and feelings.

And before you know it, your emotional response is in a downward spiral.

Tips for dealing with difficult people

But there’s a way you can learn how to deal with difficult people in a healthy way. 

It’s important to take a deep breath and stay calm. Rather than wondering what you did wrong, focus on the other person. Find out what the hidden need is.

No one sets out to be difficult and unpleasant. And more often than not, a person’s bad attitude has a lot more to do with their own personal circumstances than anything you said or did.

So listening in a respectful and dignified way may go a long way. Make sure to really listen, too – practice active listening. Nothing can be resolved while each of you is only thinking about what to say next.

When you get to the root of the issue, that negative cycle in your head takes a backseat. You may see things from a different perspective if you stop focusing on “I” and start really tuning into the needs of others.

Emotional Regulation Skills: Don’t Let Your Emotions Rule You

In a perfect world, every child is taught healthy skills to regulate their emotions. Unfortunately, though, everyone has different childhood experiences. And not every child grows into an adult who can manage their emotions.

But it’s never too late to learn healthy emotion regulation skills. And these skills can be used in every avenue of your life.

What are the emotional regulation skills?

Emotional regulation skills help change your emotional response. In the emotion process model, there are four stages in the cycle:

1: Situation – Internal or external event triggers an emotion.

2: Attention – A particular instance or nuance that grabs your attention, like crossed arms.

3: Appraisal – Your evaluation of the situation.

4: Response – Physical or emotional response to the situation.

This cycle may restart many times during the course of a conversation. But you can reprogram your responses at any point during this cycle:

Stage 1: Situation

Avoid situations or people that may be hurtful. Choose to engage in positive situations. Or change your own response to a situation you’re already in.

Stage 2: Attention

Is what you’re looking at bringing up negative emotions? Are you feeling jealous or angry?

Shift your focus on what the other person is truly trying to say. Or take a look at the nonverbal cues.

Stage 3: Appraisal

This requires actively changing what you think of a situation. Instead of berating yourself, change the negative script to a less judgmental evaluation.

Stage 4: Response

Lastly, choose a different response. You may feel like lashing out but try a breathing exercise instead.

Feeling frustrated about what you hear? Don’t storm away.

Instead, ask the person more about it so that you can start to understand each other on a deeper and more intimate level.

Other emotional regulation skills you can develop include:

  • Accepting your emotional response and choosing a positive outlet.
  • Recognition of the emotional response and understanding why it’s happening.
  • Utilize strategies to lessen the intensity of your responses.

You can also help improve your emotional responses by taking better care of yourself. Make sure you’re eating right, sleeping enough, staying active, and enjoying some you-time.

What is an emotional regulation strategy?

Do you have any emotional regulation strategies? Everyone is unique. So there’s no one right strategy that applies to every person.

However, having the right strategies on hand can help. Especially when you feel like your emotional response is getting the better of you.

For example, a study in the Brain and Behavior research journal found that humor is a good emotional regulation strategy. Especially for individuals who are prone to depression.

Another strategy is to refocus your attention. Using distraction methods. A slight shift in attention may dampen the response.

Alternatively, you may try thinking about the problem or situation in a different way. This shift in perspective can distance you from the situation.

A final thought

Create the emotions that you most like to experience.

– Jon Butcher, trainer of Mindvalley’s Lifebook Quest

Emotional regulation is the process through which your thoughts and feelings become action.

But you’re in control of that regulation.

Develop healthy emotional regulation strategies to improve your relationships in all areas of your life.

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Written by
Irina Yugay