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Emotion Regulation: Definition, Theory & Strategies

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  • 0:02 Emotion Regulation
  • 1:24 Strategies for Regulation
  • 3:58 Theories
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

What is emotion regulation? How do people view it and is there a way to learn it? Learn about a common theory of how social interactions leads to success or failure based on how one controls and regulates their emotions.

Definition of Emotion Regulation and Terminology

Emotion regulation is the conscious or non-conscious control of emotion, mood, or affect. Conscious control is an active thought process or a commitment to a behavior to control your emotion, also known as a coping mechanism. Non-conscious control means thoughts and behaviors you don't control, like temperament and how some people are just not very emotional. When we say 'emotions', we mean single emotions that are easy to define but rarely occur in isolation, like anger or sadness. Mood is an emotional state, and something which affect and emotions are built on. Sort of like when you are in a bad or good mood and everything else is built off of that. Affect is the description of a person's immediate emotional state, such as angry, ashamed, or flustered.

Human society has become increasingly complex, with rules, regulations, and social norms evolving and growing. With these increasing restrictive rules, regulations, and norms placed on each person, the individual has had to master an increasingly wide variety of emotions. By self-regulating, they are permitted to continue to live in relative freedom. Allowing emotions and actions to go unregulated, a person runs the risk of violating the laws, rules, regulations, and norms.

Strategies for Emotion Regulation

First off, actively trying to learn emotional regulation is a difficult task. Emotions occupy a part of the brain that we, as verbal creatures, don't understand very well. It is nearly impossible to describe 'anger.' You could tell me what it is like, or how it feels in your body, but to tell me what anger is can be extremely difficult.

It is possible to learn new ways to regulate your emotions. These are most commonly referred to as coping mechanisms because they allow one to cope with overwhelming or painful emotions.

Positive or healthy emotional regulation can include counting to 10 when angry, walking backwards when angry, talking with friends when upset, walking to relieve stress, journaling, and meditation (we will talk about the last one again). Each healthy coping mechanism encourages the person to think through their emotions and encourages the individual to use them again because they help and don't cause harm.

Negative or unhealthy emotional regulation includes drinking alcohol or using substances, cutting, bottling it up, denial, and lashing out. These are not so good because they can cause injury and drive others away. When used, they often allow the person to avoid their feelings instead of dealing with them. In addition, several of them can have consequences beyond the personal level, such as alcohol and substances combined with driving and verbally lashing out at others.

Non-conscious is similar to unconscious because both deal with non-verbal parts of the brain, but unconscious has a long history and many implications attached to it. Non-conscious merely states that it is the processes that you are not conscious of. There are some people who are considered 'emotionally mature.' Nothing seems to ruffle their feathers and when an emotion or situation does come up, they handle it. What happens with unconscious emotional control is the brain pathways are set up differently. Some people are raised to handle emotions better than others because of how they were raised. Children often learn by example. Others learn as adults, rewiring their brains.

It turns out rewiring the brain has been done for thousands of years. Sharon Salzberg has performed electrical studies on the brains of three types of people: intensive meditators (monks), light meditators (people who do meditation but not religiously), and non-meditators. It was found that during meditation, the brain begins to alter itself by increasing the parts of the brain that deal with inhibition. Your brain learns to slow down the more you meditate.

Theories of Emotion Regulation

Several theories exist on the origin of emotions, how they influence us, and how they could be regulated. This single topic could take up a library with the amount of articles and books written about it. We will explore the one that is the broadest and most useful to our discussion.

The Modal Model is an arranged interaction between external stimuli and internal processes. Less technical, it is a series of internal and external events that interact. According to this theory, emotion comes about in a situation that draws our attention and has a particular meaning to the individual. This situation gives rise to a coordinated, multisystem response (you think, feel, and behavioral habits are all part of your response). The breakdown looks like this:

Pre-situation > Situation > Attention > Appraisal > Response

At each of the levels, changes can be made that would alter how a person might respond. Think of it like a river; at any point, it can be diverted and it will change all of the following components.

In the pre-situation stage, also called the situation selection stage, a person can choose what situations and issues to become involved in. For example, you could avoid dealing with a person who is angry or you can choose to talk to them.

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