Everyone has those moments where they wish they could have reacted differently. Typically, our emotions get the best of us and we regret what we say (or do) almost immediately afterwards. As we pick up where Distress Tolerance and how Wise Mind Helps us Accept What is Goin On left off, we dive into the next series about DBT: emotional regulation.
What is emotional regulation? Emotional regulation is this awesome little skill we learn as a way to regulate and monitor our emotions. I must stress, this is totally different than over-feeling our emotions or ignoring and avoiding them all together. Let me explain.
By choosing to alter the intensity or the length of what we are feeling, we are still acknowledging the feeling exists. This means we are able to experience the emotion, learn from that emotion, and control how we react when that emotion is present. By having the ability to regulate our emotions, we are able to:
- Identify what we are feeling (shout out to the thalamus for releasing glutamate to our hippocampus!)
- Accept what we are experiencing (thank you prefrontal cortex for checking the facts!)
- Learn and create a memory of how we survived this situation for future reference (you go hippocampus and hypothalamus!)
- Delay our impulsive need to react immediately (Wait? A calm and regulated amygdala? That’s what I’ve always wanted!)
What is the end goal of all of this? Being able to clearly identify what we need in the moment and being able to meet those needs. Maybe it’s just me, but knowing I can meet my needs without feeling like I let my emotions get the better of me really helps me not use cognitive distortions.
Even though I did a short outline above how emotional regulation helps us, you may still be asking: how does it change the brain? When we are actively thinking and re-evaluating our emotional response, our prefrontal cortex is highly active, so active it even appears more active than that darn amygdala in MRI and CAT scans (Martin, Rebecca E, and Kevin N Ochsner, 2016). Do you know what that means? That means your reasonable brain conquers and is victorious over that darn amygdala’s catastrophizing ways! This reappraisal of our emotions also does wonders for the other parts of our limbic system.
For our thalamus, regulating our emotions allows it to process all the information our senses send us and not just the stuff that that darn amygdala filters to it. This allows our hippocampus and hypothalamus to actually regulate our emotions and assist the hypothalamus in forming positive memories (rather than the poopy negative memories we always seem to form when we are experiencing emotions we aren’t quite comfortable with).
That darn amygdala even benefits from us practicing emotional regulation. As our hippocampus and hypothalamus are storing more positive memories, that darn amygdala has more positive data to draw on. When you think about it, that darn amygdala will freak out less the more we use these emotional regulation skills.
“Difficult Truth: A lot of people are practicing emotional avoidance and calling it a positive mindset.”– Dr. Jenna Renfroe, neuropsychologist and fellow brain geek
Emotional regulation also has a pretty cool impact on our natural oxygen levels. As we talked about in my post Mindfulness: The Art of becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected, oxygen has a direct link to our stress responses. As we practice emotional regulation, our body starts to physically relax. This means we have more oxygen available to help the neurotransmitters adrenaline and norepinephrine slowly leach out of your system.
The science about emotional regulation is amazing! As much as I want to keep talking about the brain benefits of emotional regulation, I want us to jump into two very important emotional regulation skills: ABC PLEASE and opposite reaction.
Coping Skills Alert!
ABC PLEASE is this amazing acronym (darn therapists and their acronyms!) to help us to remember to engage in things we love and to promote a better mood. It also helps us to remember to take care of our bodies (say what?! Who knew taking care of our bodies could help us regulate our emotions?). With regular practice, even if you aren’t stressing out (there I go again with practice), you can help your brain better regulate those emotions.
A stands for accumulating positive emotions. You may be thinking “well duh Carissa!” But there is more than that to it. Accumulating means we have to build our happiness and continue to build on it on a daily basis. By engaging in positive events, we are impacting the brain in several ways:
- Allows the hippocampus to use more positive and comfortable emotions
- Develops a good pattern of releasing the feel good neurotransmitters
- Gives the prefrontal cortex objective facts that life is going okay
Little hint: doing something small each day promotes happiness and helps our brain stay healthy! Take a moment and come up with a list of things you know that make you happy. It doesn’t have to be this great, grandiose list of big activities. It can be as simple as snuggling your pet, seeing your shoes organized under your bed, or belting out your favorite song.
The B stands for building mastery. Through practicing what makes us happy, we are building the mastery of becoming happy. As we master something, anything, we develop a sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment is needed on a regular basis to keep the dopamine flowing and us motivated to keep moving forward in our journey of emotional regulation. The more regular that dopamine release is, the more likely it is to keep flowing. What makes mastery so hard (especially mastering choosing happiness when we are depressed or anxious) is that it takes work! Not just work, but actively practicing it enough to know what works, what doesn’t, and what works better in certain situations.
Why does it require so much work and effort? Think about it. How many of us like being vulnerable? How many more of us want to put work into something when we don’t know if it will work or not? Part of mastering anything is knowing failure will be part of it. When we allow ourselves to be okay with that vulnerability, we allow ourselves to grow!
C stands for coping ahead. That might seem a bit weird, but coping ahead is a great way to prepare for those circumstances that you know will contribute to some not-so-pleasant feelings. As we “cope ahead” we have to be real with ourselves and identify what emotions are going to be present during those circumstances and how we would normally react to that circumstance. As we look at how we would normally cope, we are allowing our prefrontal cortex to plan for the circumstance and come up with a plan on how we may want to do things differently.
Once we have created a new plan for that circumstance, we can now take a moment to envision how that new plan is going to work. This process is kind of like us taking the opportunity to role-play our plan, practice it, and be able to tweak it if the plan doesn’t seem like it would quite work. By planning and envisioning, we are preparing our darn amygdala to react differently. Our prefrontal cortex is supporting our hippocampus to release a different set of neurotransmitters, not just those stressful ones that tells our darn amygdala to go nuts.
The next part of the acronym, PLEASE, deals with how we are physically caring for ourselves. That’s right, we need to take care of our bodies in order to take care of our emotional regulation! By taking care of our bodies, we are doing a few things:
- Identifying what our bodies feel like when we are experiencing emotions
- Understanding what our body might need (for example: if you haven’t eaten regularly, low blood sugar can mimic anxiety symptoms)
- Maintaining a regular routine to keep our mental health more on the side of mental wealth
- Providing you with signs that your emotions could be impacting you more than you thought
The PLEASE helps create a warning and prevention system, all helping keep your emotions (and reactions) in check. Some of them seem pretty Captain Obvious, others, may not. Just like I said above (and in every post), practicing these skill will help you when these strong emotions pop up. Take the time to set up a realistic routine to start setting time aside to practice these skills. Need ideas on setting up a realistic routine? Check out my older post Why Your Brain Need a Routine.
Coping Skill Alert!
The next skill I find very helpful is known as opposite action. Action is an emotional regulation skill that prepares us to take action. If you have figured it out by now, our darn amygdala is hard wired to react certain ways in certain situations. As much as we like to react to what that darn amygdala is telling us to do, we now know that sometimes, it really doesn’t make the best of choices. If anything, reacting to the emotion that is screaming at us can make the emotion feel even worse.
Opposite action allows our prefrontal cortex to come into the picture and help our darn amygdala make a different choice. This helps us regulate our emotions in a few different ways: First, it helps us label what we are actually feeling (Wait? We have to identify what we are feeling versus numbing out and pretend it doesn’t exist?). What this does is gives the hippocampus a chance to find memories of this emotion that have been stored to help the prefrontal cortex help that darn amygdala understand it has indeed felt this before. Next, the thalamus helps that darn amygdala calm down by slowing the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine in order for you to remember what is in your control. With all of that going on, you are able to choose how you want to react.
To practice opposite action, we have to engage in an activity that will produce the opposite emotion of what we are feeling. Here are some examples:
- Feeling depressed and stuck in bed? Using behavioral activation to take a 15 minute walk will release serotonin, get that body in motion, and help you stay engaged in day-to-day activities
- Anxiety has you feeling like no one cares about you? By participating in activities, such as volunteering, allows you to feel included (plus releases the neurotransmitter dopamine) and feeling accomplished.
- Are you angry about what crap your boss has you doing? Take a moment to do an act of kindness for someone. The oxytocin and endorphins released by that act of kindness reduces the levels of stress you feel (plus, it helps heal your hippocampus and keeps it in tip top shape)
- Have you been stuck in that cycle of being overwhelmed and trapped by your to-do list? Take time to practice some self-care. Check out my post Mindfulness: the Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected for some ideas on self-care
It is important as you do these opposite actions to check in with yourself once they are done. This check in will allow you to see how choosing the opposite action to what you were initially feeling, what you are feeling after you participated in the opposite action, and how that choice impacted you. What I love about checking in after participating in the opposite action is it allows your prefrontal cortex to partner with the hypothalamus and hippocampus to create new positive memories on how to deal with emotions. That way, there are facts present right away for that darn amygdala to use and say “we can do it differently!” The other cool thing about checking in is it gives your brain (mostly that darn amygdala and the prefrontal cortex) a chance to reevaluate our emotional response and make a decision if that first response was really needed. As this is happening, the neurotransmitter, glutamate, is being released, helping create new memories of how we will survive if that emotion happens again.
Isn’t it amazing what some of these skills can do to change our brains? I want to thank you so much for taking charge of your mental health. It isn’t an easy role, but it is one that your brain thanks you for the work you are doing. I will be doing another post next week about more emotional regulation skills, which excites me because everyone loves options!
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- Eddins, Rachel (2020). Emotional Regulation Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions: [7 Skills to Practice Today. Retrieved from Emotional Regulation Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions: [7 Skills to Practice Today] (eddinscounseling.com)
- Hirayama K. (2015). Brain and nerve = Shinkei kenkyu no shinpo, 67(12), 1499–1508. https://doi.org/10.11477/mf.1416200328. Retrieved from [Thalamus and Emotion] – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Martin, R. E., & Ochsner, K. N. (2016). The Neuroscience of Emotion Regulation Development: Implications for Education. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 10, 142–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.06.006. Retrieved from The Neuroscience of Emotion Regulation Development: Implications for Education (nih.gov)
- Zhu Yashuo, Gao Hui, Tong Li, Li ZhongLin, Wang Linyuan, Zhang Chi, Yang Qiang, Yan Bin (2019). Emotion Regulation of Hippocampus Using Real-Time fMRI Neurofeedback in Healthy Human. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Volume 13. Retrieved from Frontiers | Emotion Regulation of Hippocampus Using Real-Time fMRI Neurofeedback in Healthy Human | Human Neuroscience (frontiersin.org)