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6 Guided Steps for Emotion Regulation and Healthy Coping

Discover 6 powerful steps for emotion regulation and healthy coping. Learn how to regain control of your emotions and create a more balanced life.


Written by Sarah Talarico and reviewed by Shawn Horn PsyD, PS

A person pressing white flowers to their face like they're crying. This picture is used to demonstrate emotions and represent this blog on emotion regulation.

Part of being human is experiencing a plethora of emotions that have the potential to enhance or sabotage our lives. It’s important to know that emotions are neutral; they are there to inform us. Sometimes, feelings of anxiety, stress, anger, and sadness can seem like they’re “bad” for us, and they serve no purpose. Although those types of feelings can be uncomfortable or even unbearable at times, it’s our body’s way of communicating with us. Learning to pause, be curious, and listen to your body’s cues and feelings can be challenging and take time.


Everyone struggles with emotions. No one is born knowing how to self-regulate, manage their reactions, and have healthy coping mechanisms. While some may be more intuitive, these are skills you learn and develop. 


All emotions are part of our design and normal to feel. The problem comes when they turn into secondary expressions that interfere with your daily life. While emotions like sadness and anger are normal, secondary expressions like depression, rage, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions can cause significant disruption and problems in our lives. Without the right understanding of the role of emotions in our lives and how to attend to them, you may end up feeling powerless and at the whim of your emotions, leading to future health concerns and negative life outcomes. By regulating our emotions, we can transform our dysregulated states into opportunities for self-growth, improve our relationships, and create a more balanced and fulfilling life. 


In this blog, you’ll learn how to regain control of your emotions, feel your emotions in a safe way, explore different ways to regulate your nervous system, and find better alternatives to responding to your emotions. 


 

Step 1 - Put out the fire


Sometimes, when we become dysregulated, we can't think straight, let alone name our feelings and be curious about them. This first step helps us calm our nervous system to collect our thoughts and feelings for better coping.


This step is similar to "stop, drop, and roll" when we learn fire safety. The goal is to pause whatever you're doing and de-escalate your nervous system that's on "fire." There are several strategies for accomplishing this goal; you can pick any of them that works best for you.


Blow out the candle

Pretend there's a birthday cake in front of you with five lit candles. Blow steady, long breaths out to extinguish each flame, and then do it again because, surprise, they're trick candles!


Box breathing

Box breathing is a great way to regain control of your breathing and center yourself when you're panicking or overwhelmed (Side note, learn more about Box Breath in Dr. Horn's book, "The Christian Journal for Women with Anxiety: Prompts to Soothe Anxious Thoughts and Find Strength in Your Faith").


Follow these steps:

  1. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of four

  2. Hold your breath for a count of four

  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four

  4. Hold your exhalation for a count of four

  5. Repeat steps 1–4 for three to four rounds


Somatic shaking

Have you ever seen an animal shake its body after being stressed? Animals do that to relieve stress and to calm down. Like animals, human beings can benefit from shaking. Shaking the body has various benefits, like releasing emotional and physical tension, trauma, and endorphins. Shaking helps to calm the body from a fight-or-flight response and regulates the nervous system.


Vocal Toning

Vocal toning can be done in different ways, such as singing, humming, chanting, or gargling. These exercises stimulate the vagus nerve and can deactivate the body's threat response, allowing us to regulate our emotions again.


Psychologist Dr. Malchiodi provides excellent examples of vagal toning exercises in "Tapping the Healing Rhythms of the Vagal Nerve" (Malchiodi, 2020). One of Dr. Malchiodi's exercises is toning with vowels; at least five times, you inhale deeply, and on your exhale, you tone each vowel A-E-I-O-U.


Some other strategies you can try:

  • Putting ice on your face or taking a cold shower

  • Eating something sour such as a lemon or sour candy

  • Lay under a weighted blanket

  • Vagus nerve tapping

  • Co-regulating with a safe, trusted person

  • Meditation

  • Mindfulness



Step 2 - Name it to tame it


Naming or identifying our emotions is crucial to better understanding ourselves and our triggers and finding ways to help ourselves in the future. When we give them a name, they become less ominous and scary and more manageable.


There is a huge spectrum of emotions beyond the staple: happy, mad, or sad. Using an emotion chart or wheel may help determine your feelings, especially if you're a visual learner. One excellent source to explore is an article by PsychCentral called "How to Understand Your Feelings Using an Emotion Wheel," which provides a few different emotion wheels and how to use them.


Step 3 - Be curious


After identifying what emotion(s) you're feeling, this is the moment you get to be curious and observe yourself without judgment. Like a scientist, approach this moment objectively and explore what happened and how you're feeling.


Ask yourself:


"What triggered this reaction?"


"What is this emotion trying to tell me?"


"What does this emotion need from me?"


"Where are my feelings manifesting in my body? What are the sensations I'm feeling?"


Sometimes, our bodies react in a big way to get our attention so we can take proper measures to survive. A saying I like to say is, "Behind every protest is a request," meaning that whenever your body reacts in a protesting way through anxiety, stress, fear, anger, etc., your body is trying to request or tell you something. For example, by staying curious, you may find that when you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed about a certain task, your body needs you to figure out a plan to break it down into more manageable pieces or ask for support. Or when you feel angry and frustrated in public, you may realize that you're overstimulated and need to bring noise-canceling headphones to block out background noise. Or maybe you feel helpless or powerless around certain people; your body may be trying to tell you that you need better boundaries.


Investigating your emotions without judgment allows you to understand yourself deeper, feel safer in your body, and recognize these moments of dysregulation more easily and quickly.


Step 4 - Create an action plan


Now that you've explored why you may feel certain emotions and found possible triggers, this step involves creating an action plan to be proactive instead of reactive and anticipating your needs. 


During this step, ask yourself:


"How can I reduce triggers in the future?"


"What were some helpful tools that regulated me again with this trigger? Which ones can I use in the future?"


"How can I soothe and make sure this emotion is heard?"


"What can I do in the future to help connect my heart, mind, and body so that they know I'm on their side?"


Some people create an "emergency box or bag" for future moments of emotional dysregulation. They might include a fidget toy, a weighted blanket, an ice pack, a favorite stuffed animal, headphones, a juice box, or snacks. You could even include a journal to mark down some meditations, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, or vagal tone exercises to remind yourself what to do in those dysregulated moments.


Journals can also be helpful to have on hand to note what might have triggered you, what emotions came up, any observations you have, patterns you notice, and to process what happened.


Another helpful action plan is having a code word and an exit plan with someone you trust if you start to recognize you're becoming dysregulated. This way, you can leave, go someplace quieter, and regulate yourself again.


You can get creative with what helps you feel centered and calm again. What works for someone else may not work for you. Remember to approach this step similarly to Step 3, with curiosity and patience. It may take some time to determine the most effective plan or tools.


Step 5 - Accept and embrace


This step is about holding yourself, embracing where you're at in the moment, and being gentle with yourself. Being dysregulated can put you in a state of vulnerability and make you feel powerless.


Here are some meditation/mindfulness ideas to help guide you through those big feelings:


  1. Imagine your emotions as water. Maybe it's a warm shower or a tropical waterfall. Allow yourself to relax under the water as it washes over you. Remind yourself that these emotions will pass and you are safe.

  2. Imagine you're sitting with your emotions in a car. During moments when you feel dysregulated and out of control, it may feel like your emotions are in the driver's seat and you're in the back seat during a scary storm. Tell your emotions that everything will be okay, that you will take the driver's seat now because you have the license, and while they have good intentions, they do not. Let them know that you appreciate them trying to drive you to safety, but reassure them that you will learn how to drive through storms safely and protect them better in the future. Imagine yourself driving them to your favorite, safe, happy place.

  3. Pretend your emotions as living beings. What do they look like? What do they want to say? Allow yourself to have a conversation with them. Talk to them peacefully, letting them know you see and hear them. Build a relationship with them, maybe even a plan for the next time you see them.

  4. Visualize you're at an airport, and your emotions are on the baggage claim conveyor belt. Let them go around and remind yourself that they will come around every so often, but that doesn't mean you have to pick them up.


Accepting and embracing your feelings does not mean you're letting your emotions run wild. On the contrary, this step helps you connect, affirm, and validate yourself and regain control so these feelings don't become more intense, unmanageable, and lead to further problems.


Step 6 - Self-care


Regulating yourself again can be exhausting and leave you feeling raw and disconnected from yourself. Self-care is a way to regain your sense of self and show your body love and understanding after experiencing something uncomfortable and overwhelming.


There are many different ways to practice self-care and be present in your body again. Not all self-care is warm and cozy; self-care could be cleaning your home to feel clarity and a sense of control, exercising to feel rejuvenated and refreshed, or doing things you know your future self will be grateful for, like showering and brushing your teeth.


Self-care may not come naturally to you; know that you are not alone. Many struggle with caring for themselves and being intuitive and in tune with their body's needs. You may have to learn, practice, and strengthen this skill over time.


Conclusion


Emotions are natural and essential to the human experience. By learning and understanding them, you have the power to transform your emotional experiences and strengthen your inner self. Emotion regulation and coping skills are vital for navigating the complexities of life, maintaining healthy relationships, and leading a more harmonious life.


Emotion regulation is a continuous process that requires patience, practice, and lots of self-love. As you implement more emotion regulation strategies into your life, you will likely find that your ability to handle stress, be balanced and resilient, and maintain a positive outlook will improve significantly. 


We hope you found this blog informative! If so, we would be grateful if you shared it with a few friends, colleagues, or family members. By sharing our blogs, you play a crucial role in helping us spread mental health awareness and craft more meaningful content for readers like you.


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Disclaimer for Inspired Living Blog


The information on the Inspired Living Blog is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. While the content on this blog is provided with the utmost care and accuracy regarding mental health and psychological topics, it is not a substitute for professional consultation with a qualified psychologist or healthcare provider.

Readers are advised that the understanding and interpretation of mental health issues are complex and highly individualized. Therefore, the insights and guidance provided on this blog should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health condition independently. If you are struggling with mental health issues, it is crucial to seek the advice of a licensed professional who can provide you with personalized care and support.


 

References


Fletcher, J. (2023, August 12). Emotion wheel: What it is and how to use it. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/health/emotion-wheel#takeaway


Malchiodi, C. (2020, April 13). Tapping the healing rhythms of the vagal nerve. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/arts-and-health/202004/tapping-the-healing-rhythms-the-vagal-nerve


O’Kelly, K. (2023, October 23). 8 polyvagal theory exercises to try at home Today. Lunasa Counseling and Wellness. https://www.lunasacounselingandwellness.com/blog/polyvagal-theory-exercises


Wong, A. (2023, August 25). Shaking it out: Cathartic movement for emotional release. Somatopia. https://www.somatopia.com/blog/shaking-it-out-cathartic-movement-for-emotional-release

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