What Is Emotional Regulation & How Can You Improve Your Own? Let's Break It Down

Emotions are a universal truth; every person on earth experiences them. You may have noticed, however, that some people seem to have the ability to remain calm and rational no matter what type of emotion they happen to be feeling. That ability to identify, manage, and rationally respond to your own emotions is known as emotional regulation. Some people — particularly those with high emotional intelligence, which is especially important in relationships — are naturally more capable of regulating their own emotions than others.


Fortunately, emotional regulation is a skill that can be learned by anyone willing to put in the work and patience required. With practice and healthy coping mechanisms, you can develop the awareness needed to regulate your own emotions. If you struggle with regulating your emotions, you might find yourself embarrassed or even shamed when you lose control of your behavior. You are not alone. Consider this guide the starting point for your emotional regulation journey. 

Regulation versus suppression

A common misconception regarding emotional regulation is the idea that in order to regulate your emotions, you must suppress them. When you — as a person who is dysregulated — witness a person remaining emotionally regulated, it may look on the outside as if they aren't experiencing emotions at all. It's easy to assume this person is simply suppressing their emotions rather than acknowledging them. What you don't see is the internal measures they are taking to regulate emotions and control their behavior.


While it may present similarly, suppressing your emotions is actually the opposite of emotional regulation. Refusing to feel or acknowledge an emotion by stuffing it away is simply a version of shutting down. This is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can backfire in a variety of ways, including manifesting as physical pain or illness such as tension headaches, digestive troubles, high blood pressure, heart disease, and insomnia.

Healthy versus unhealthy coping mechanisms

When emotions become difficult or uncomfortable, it's natural to turn to coping mechanisms to move through them. The important question to ask yourself is whether the coping mechanism you're turning to is healthy or unhealthy. A healthy coping mechanism helps you to move the sensations associated with a difficult emotion through your body and your mind. This might look like running, crying, journaling, practicing somatic breathwork, or meditating.


An unhealthy coping mechanism is more about numbing the unpleasant emotion than processing it. Common unhealthy coping mechanisms include suppressing your emotions, abusing drugs or alcohol, self-harming, and indulging in violent outbursts. Anger is a secondary emotion that often covers up a primary emotion that is too painful to process such as fear, shame, or abandonment. Lashing out in an angry or violet manner as a quick release is common for people who haven't yet learned how to regulate their emotions, even though the behavior does not address the primary emotion at play. 

Identifying your triggers

Your emotions and the way you express them are always solely your responsibility. However, it can help you stay prepared to turn to healthy coping mechanisms if you remain alert and aware of your own triggers. Your past experiences are likely to be the most accurate predictor of your future emotional triggers. If you aren't aware of what triggers strong emotions for you, start paying attention to how you feel in different situations and with different types of people.


You will probably find that your challenges with emotional regulation directly correlate to your own life experiences. For example, if you grew up in a household with a father who was addicted to alcohol and exhibited abusive behavior, your emotions might be heightened in situations where alcohol is being consumed, especially by men. Once you understand that this situation is an emotional trigger for you, you can go into these scenarios ready to employ a healthy coping mechanism before your emotions start to feel out of control. 

Body scanning

If you typically just blindly react to your emotions and have never taken the time to identify, acknowledge, and process them, you might not even know where to begin. It can be helpful to keep in mind that emotions are often referred to as feelings because they originate as physical sensations felt in the body. Becoming aware of how different emotions feel in your body can help you learn to recognize what you're feeling before you react impulsively.


As soon as you recognize that you're experiencing a challenging emotion or that you've encountered a potentially triggering situation, mentally scan your body for sensations. Start with your toes and move up your body, asking yourself how each region feels. Do your knees feel weak or shaky? Is your stomach in knots? Does your neck or back feel tense? What did it indicate the last time you noticed yourself feeling these sensations? Everyone experiences emotions differently. Knowing where they manifest in your body can help you understand what you're experiencing earlier in the process, which gives you a better opportunity to regulate. 

Nervous system regulation

Because emotions originate in the body, emotional regulation and nervous system regulation go hand-in-hand. Experiencing an intensely negative emotion such as fear, anger, or despair activates your sympathetic nervous system and can flip its figurative switch into "fight-or-flight" mode. Experiencing an intensely positive emotion, whether love or joy, activates your parasympathetic mode, switching your brain and body into "rest-and-digest" mode.


Since your emotions and your nervous system are so intertwined, regulating your nervous system can clear the way for emotional regulation. When you're experiencing a strong emotion, try taking steps toward regulating your nervous system. A few moments of breathing exercises, intuitive movement, or micro-meditation is often enough to calm your nervous system and allow you to consciously asses what you're feeling and how you should proceed in productively acknowledging and expressing that emotion. Experiment with different ways of regulating your nervous system until you find the one that feels the most natural and effortless to you. 

Search for the choice

No matter how intense the emotion you're experiencing may feel, you always have a choice when it comes to the way you behave. Once you've learned how to regulate your nervous system and identify the primary emotion at the core of what you're feeling, the choice in how you respond will become clearer. Where you once would have lashed out or lost control, you may now see that you have two clear avenues available to you.


For example, you can disrupt a meeting at work when you feel slighted by your boss in front of your coworkers. Or, you can mentally acknowledge what you're feeling, remain composed, and send a private, professionally-worded email when you return to your desk. There is always a choice, and mastering emotional regulation allows you to step back enough to see and acknowledge that choice. While it might seem to the people around you as if you're suppressing or bypassing your emotions, you're actually choosing to acknowledge and express them in the healthiest, most productive manner possible. 

Consider professional guidance

Regulating your emotions isn't easy. If you struggle with a mental or behavioral health issue known to cause emotional dysregulation such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or borderline personality disorder (BPD), you will likely need to seek professional help. Even if you don't struggle with mental illness, consulting a professional is an effective and responsible way to approach learning the skills you need for emotional regulation.


If meeting a mental health professional in person feels intimidating or you're limited by your location, online help is available. Consider checking out an online counseling platform such as Betterhelp, Talkspace, or Cerebral for mental health services that take place in the privacy of your own home.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website