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Emotion Regulation

I am sure most people have heard emotions being spoken about metaphorically as a liquid in some sort of vessel. For example, we hear people saying they are filling their cup or bucket when doing something for themselves or another to increase happiness or in doing a good deed. Such as when teachers have a bucket where children can fill it by doing tasks in the school that are helpful, kind or generous. You also hear of people saying they are filling their cup when taking care of themselves or doing something they enjoy. They are referring to the process of building back up their reserves by doing something that brings them positive emotions of happiness or gratitude. Another example is when we hear, “You cannot give from an empty cup,” meaning that we cannot give of ourselves if we have nothing to give or if we aren’t taking care of ourselves properly. In this way, we think of the liquid as being our happiness, love, kindness, gratitude, etc., that we have as emotional reserves to draw on for ourselves and to give to others.

For nearly every emotion, when we have an overabundance, we run the risk of it spilling over. If you take frustration, sadness and add in a dose of anger to anyone’s cup it runs the risk of becoming full. When it reaches that level it is hard to walk through the world without the emotions spilling over in tears or angry outbursts. Now, there is nothing wrong with expressing emotion. Crying is a good thing but for most want to do it in a socially appropriate place or time. Crying at work in the middle of presentation because of a technological glitch would likely cause embarrassment for the person crying and confusion for the witnesses. Having your voice heard is far different than verbal tongue lashings, swearing or physical outbursts that all may have long term repercussions. The point is, it can be hard to live life with a cup nearing overflow. We spend time and focus on preventing spillage so we don’t live our lives fully or with presence. Our minds must attend to managing our emotions as opposed to all that goes on around us. Even happiness can have this effect, especially for children and young people, or for those who haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions. How many times have you seen a child cry at their birthday and have a total meltdown? This is often result of an overflow of emotion, even a good one.

As we get older and more adept at monitoring our emotions we learn ways to cope with emotional overload. We cry at appropriate times. We name our emotions. We talk things out. We exercise. We practice gratitude, mindfulness, relaxation, and deep breathing. We keep our emotions at a workable level and when they start to overflow, we deal with them in appropriate ways.

For some, the amount of emotion is too overwhelming. They don’t want to feel the intensity of their emotions or deal with the associated or accompanying memories. As a result, some people stifle and suppress their emotions. Others resort to overeating, drinking or drug use to numb or hide them. There are many unhealthy coping mechanisms to avoid dealing with our emotional state.

Now let’s say you are nearing capacity with your emotions. Let’s pretend that our emotions are pop in in a bottle. We are going about our day and managing to keep our emotions appropriately contained. There are many antecedent events, especially for children/teens or those who haven’t learned to emotionally regulate, that can lead to overflow. Even for myself, I have a more difficult time with emotional regulation when I don’t get enough sleep, am sick or my routine has changed. For others having their medication changed, being in a situation where they are fearful, surprised, anxious or otherwise stressed out can have similar consequences. All of these events act to shake up our emotions to a point where they are fizzing. We reach a level where the pressure becomes uncomfortable or even unbearable. Most people know opening the lid will be of assistance but many have concern they won’t be able to contain what happens when it is opened. Nobody likes the feeling of being out of control. So what can we do in this situation?

1. Stop. Slow down for a bit and let things settle. If you have a child, teach them to take some deep breaths. When we’ve settled, we can open the lid. There might be some overflow but hopefully it will be in a place where we feel comfortable or in a way we can recover from.

2. Engage in activities that prevent pressure. By reducing stress or expressing our emotions regularly means our cup doesn’t get too full or the bottle doesn’t get too shaken up. When we practice good stress management, it’s amazing how resilient we can become. Our ability to regulate our emotions become exponentially more effective.

3. When the pressure gets too high, release some of it. Imagine a bottle full of pop shaken vigorously. If the cap were removed entirely, we’d have a mess. It would be near impossible to contain the pop. If we didn’t open the lid at all, we’d have a lot of bubbles for quite a while and the issue would not be resolved. However, if the cap was slowly opened and then quickly closed again, the pressure would be reduced.

That’s the beauty of counselling. Trained counsellors can help you with the aforementioned suggestions. Counsellors create a safe space for when the overflow occurs. They can also teach skills to recover. Counsellors and therapists can provide resources, techniques and tools to reduce and prevent stress. When the cause of the pressure isn’t evident, they can assist in identify the source so it can be addressed. Mental health professionals also provide a safe and confidential space to release a small amount of the pressure. They can help to open it up and then facilitate containment. Emotion regulation is a skill. Our bottles aren’t meant to be sealed up forever nor are they meant to be shaken and sprayed all over. Our emotions are meant to be noticed, felt and expressed.

If you would like assistance with any of the three suggestions, please contact me. Remember, life situations will put us in positions that will shake us past any point of regulation. There are things we cannot prepare for. If you have found yourself in one of those situations, I would feel privileged to assist you with that.

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