A 4-year old cries when his mom drops him off at pre-school. This is an emotional reaction in anticipation of his separation from his mom. He might feel upset or anxious about the separation. And yet, a few minutes after mom has left, he is happily interacting with the other kids because his focus has been shifted away from the separation.
When we touch a hot pot, we withdraw our hands immediately. There is no emotion associated with it; it’s an instinctive reaction. Outside of instinctive reactions, all of our reactions are emotional. We might be angry, anxious, frightened, sad, or happy: Each of these emotions will evoke a variety of potential reactions.
For example: My reaction to fear is laughter. Once, I was on a snorkeling trip with particularly choppy waves. Being a novice swimmer, I was so wrought with fear that I could not stop laughing hysterically. In fact, I laughed with such tenacity that my snorkel goggles fogged up altogether: Sporting a life-jacket, floating on two pool noodles, flanked by my son and two daughters, and emitting shrill laughter amidst the waves and the ocean breeze, I must have been quite a sight.
Knowing our emotions and managing our reactions accordingly is the core of emotional regulation. It takes a few steps:
- Self-observation – Be present within ourselves. When we notice our reactions, we must stand back to examine what emotion has been triggered.
- Self-awareness – Notice how we react to our triggers and the potential impact of that reaction.
- Self-management – Acknowledge our emotions and manage our reactions in a way that will better serve us and those around us.
Use my own experience as an example. The next time when I am facing a challenge while snorkeling, I will acknowledge my fear and focus on relaxing and breathing instead of draining my energy on bouts of hysterical laughter. That way, I might be able to float well enough to enjoy the warmth of the water, the beautiful fish, and the lovely sea – all preferable to fogged up goggles.
The opportunity to choose a different way of managing our emotions can set us free from the old and dysfunctional patterns that we fall into when we were young. To choose how we respond to our own reactions and their consequent emotions is to create new neural pathways for our brain. The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal.
What plan do you have for regulating emotions in 2020?