Emotional Self-Regulation: Exercises, Skills, and Strategies

Dr. Samantha Morel April 19th, 2023

Therapy Emotion Regulation

What is Emotional Self Regulation?

Emotional self-regulation is the ability to modify or control your thoughts, emotions, actions, and words; pausing to collect your thoughts before you respond. It can also mean waiting until you’re in a supportive setting to process tough feelings. Having strong emotional regulation skills can enhance long-term wellbeing, improve performance at work, enrich personal relationships, and even lead to better overall health.

Emotions are a normal part of everyday life. We feel frustrated when we’re stuck in traffic. We feel sad when we miss our loved ones. While we expect to feel these emotions regularly, some people start to experience emotions that are more volatile. They feel higher highs and lower lows, and these peaks and valleys begin to impact their lives.

Top 5 Emotion Regulation Skills to Master

1. Create space

Emotions happen quickly. We don’t think “Oh, now I am going to be sad”, the feeling appears out of nowhere. The space we can give ourselves is to pause, take a breath, and slow down the moment between trigger and response is a huge part of regulating emotions and not allowing them to control you. 

2. Noticing what you feel

An important skill is to become aware of what you are feeling. I can teach you all the skills in the world, but if you can’t do this, if you can’t catch it, none of them will help. Being self-aware, tuning into yourself to consider:  What parts of my body am I noticing sensations? Is my stomach upset? Is my heart racing? Do I feel tension in my neck or head? Now you can respond to that! 

While these physical symptoms could be clues to what you are experiencing emotionally, focusing on what is happening physically also serves to distract your attention out of your head, into your body, and allow some of the intensity of the emotion to subside.

3. Naming what you feel

Ask yourself: what would you call the emotions I’m feeling? Is it anger, sadness, disappointment, or resentment? What else is it? One strong emotion that often hides beneath others is fear. That one can be tough. But it’s important because fear often initiates our primal fight or flight responses, when in reality, we don’t need that kind of reaction to stay safe. 

4. Accepting the emotion

Emotions are a normal and natural reaction in life. Instead of beating yourself for feeling angry or sad, recognize and validate your emotions. Give yourself grace and practice self-compassion. If that concept is hard for you, try practicing with a short self-compassion meditation.


5. Practicing mindfulness

Let’s “live in the moment”, and practicing mindfulness allows us to do that. We want to pay attention to what is happening inside us. These skills can help you stay calm and avoid engaging in negative thought patterns when you are in the midst of emotional pain.

5 Strategies to Regulate your Emotions

1. Identify and reduce triggers

You can’t avoid negative emotions…. It wont work. We don’t actually need to avoid them to stay safe. Instead, start to look for patterns or factors that are present when you start to feel strong emotions. Strong emotions often arise from our deep-seated insecurities. When you identify certain triggers, you can start to explore why they carry so much weight and whether you can reduce their importance. 

2. Tune into physical symptoms

Tune into how you are feeling, whether you are hungry or tired because factors can exacerbate your emotions, causing you to interpret your emotions more strongly. If you can address the underlying feeling (ex. hunger, exhaustion), you can change your emotional response. If you’ve never snapped at someone after a night of bad sleep, you’ll understand that sleep plays a HUGE role in being able to regulate emotions. Don’t sleep on the importance of sleep! 🙂 

3. Consider the story you are telling yourself

In the absence of information, we tend to fill in the blanks with our own details and usually those are pretty catastrophic. Perhaps you are feeling rejected from a close friend after you haven’t heard from them in a while; you believe it is because they no longer care about you. Before you make these attributions, ask yourself: what other explanations might be possible? In the example of the close friend , what else could be going on with them that would stop them from reaching out to you? Could they be busy or sick? Are they a well-intentioned person who often forgets to follow through on commitments? Try responding from that space instead of the freaking out space!

4. Engage in positive self- talk

If you treat yourself with empathy, you can replace some of the negative talk with positive comments. Try encouraging yourself by saying “I always try so hard” or “People are doing the best they can.” You can still be frustrated with a situation that isn’t working but no longer have to assign blame or generalize it beyond the situation

5. Make a choice about how to respond

I say it all the time in therapy. Your feelings are valid. You are still responsible for what you do with them. In most situations, we have a choice about how to respond. Let’s say you tend to lash out when you feel angry. Next time you feel anger, recognize that you get to choose how to respond to that emotion. Rather than lashing out, can you try a different response? Is it possible for you to tell someone that you’re feeling angry rather than speaking harshly to them? Get curious about your new response. How did it make you feel? How did the other person respond?

Negative emotions are a part of our daily lives. Pretending they don’t exist will not make them go away. Instead of trying to ignore and avoid them, try to develop emotional regulation and intelligence skills. Building the ability to self-regulate is beneficial to communication and relationships. 

Stay well.

-Dr. M

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Samantha Morel, Ph.D.

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