“Emotional regulation” is the process of adjusting or managing the feelings you have, how intensely you experience them, and how you express them. Most often, the need to regulate your emotions will occur in the context of your relationships with others. And while it can be difficult to always have control over your emotional experience and your reactions, doing so is a key aspect of maintaining healthy social ties at home and with your teammates. To effectively regulate your emotions, it’s important to stay tuned in to your feelings and reactions, have personalized coping strategies on hand, and focus on communication habits that will lead to connection and cohesion.
The basics of emotional regulation
The feelings you experience throughout the day help you make decisions, respond to those around you, and connect to your environment. And whether you know it or not, you’re constantly managing those emotions (to the best of your ability) to meet your goals. For example, if you’re going for a new combat-focused marksmanship qualification, you might be nervous or anxious. But rather than bolting for the door, chances are you manage (or try to manage) those fears because you’re trying to achieve something meaningful. While you might encounter countless examples like this throughout your military career, the reality is that there will be many more that involve interactions with other people.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if you let out everything you were feeling at any given time on the people around you…probably not a pretty picture. Imagine yelling back at your drill sergeant/RCD/MTI/drill instructor in basic because you’re too tired, telling a loved one that you don’t want to hear about their day because you’re stressed, or crying to the clerk at the commissary because the pandemic panic left the shelves empty. Chances are, even if you felt like doing any of these things, you probably didn’t. Why? It’s because the consequences of acting on your feelings would have been counterproductive to your goals.
The good news is that you probably already have the ability to regulate your emotions to some degree. But the trouble is that sometimes it’s not so easy to adjust the way you feel and control how much of your feelings you act on. And sometimes the consequences are subtle. Consider the last time you let yourself get heated in an argument with your spouse, or the last time you were too hard on a team member or subordinate, or the last battle buddy you didn’t call because of the feelings or memories you wanted to avoid. These actions and outcomes are likely counterproductive too, but somehow slip through the cracks.
Types of emotional regulation
There are different ways one might want to control their emotions. The examples above are generally more about decreasing the negative, but it’s important to consider the wide variety of ways you influence outcomes and relationships with others by adjusting your feelings and behaviors.
Decrease the negative. Consider the moments when you try to cope with negative emotions by reducing them. For example, you get a drink of water to help calm down during an argument with your partner or spouse.
Increase the negative. Sometimes you might need to hype up your negative feelings depending on your goals. For instance, if you’re gearing up for an intense mission or exercise and you need to call up some not-so-great feelings—such as anger towards an enemy target or rival—for motivation.
Decrease the positive. Then there are times you might need to shut down your experience of positive or enjoyable emotions. For example, when you have to keep up that straight face and proper decorum during a formation but you can’t stop thinking about that hilarious thing that just happened in the dining facility. Or it’s when you’re trying to pass the “rubber chicken test” at Honor Guard Tech School!
Increase the positive. Perhaps the most desired situation is when you want to pump up those good feelings and share them with others. Maybe it’s during a celebration of a special achievement or when sharing good news with family and friends.
Managing your emotions with others
Emotional regulation is important because both big and small interpersonal actions matter when it comes to your performance. Whether it’s with your support network at home and with friends, or on duty with your team and unit members, regulating your emotions helps build the relationships you need to be socially fit and meet your Total Force Fitness goals.
At work and on duty, you’ll likely get farther when you’re able to communicate in a productive, professional way rather than letting your unchecked emotions speak for you. At home, couples who effectively regulate their emotions to reduce escalation during conflict and increase positive emotions on a regular basis (such as focusing on fun and intimacy) tend to be happier in their relationships too. Finally, for parents with young children, it’s important to remember that the way you help your child regulate their emotions (again, how you respond when they get overwhelmed with either good or bad feelings) can stay with them for life. So even in situations when you’re feeling overwhelmed too (for instance, a military spouse or parent who is sad to send their Warfighter on another deployment), you’ve got to be able to manage your feelings to support the emotional needs of your kids.
However, controlling your emotions during interactions with others is harder than when you’re alone. Why?
- Rather than just having to watch and adjust your own reaction to a static situation, you have to understand and react to the other person’s emotional state as well as the impacts of each other’s attempts at emotional regulation. And it’s a constant back-and-forth in a dynamic that’s continually shifting.
- There might be times when you’re trying to use your emotions to help regulate the emotions of the other person. (A simple example of this might be how a parent tries to soothe an upset child).
- You and the person you’re interacting with might have different emotional goals. For example, when you get into an argument with your spouse or partner, you might cope by withdrawing from the conversation to avoid further upset. Meanwhile though, your partner might cope through continued engagement and talking it out until it’s resolved. So when you each make attempts to regulate your emotions, you might be making the other person feel worse.
- Military Service Members might have particular difficulty when a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at play. Both of these invisible injuries make emotional regulation very hard—in part because of the neurological changes to the brain. PTSD specifically is characterized by “emotional dysregulation”—the inability to identify and manage strong feelings or the experience of intense or intolerable emotions that might not fit the situation.
Tactics to improve your emotional regulation process
Even though it’s often tougher to manage your emotions and the emotional triggers that come from interactions with others, it’s an important (and learnable!) skill.
- Remember that regulation is NOT suppression. It’s much different managing and controlling your emotional reactions than trying to ignore, suppress, or bury them. Effective emotional regulation within your relationships is about mindfully expressing your emotions using good communication and purposefully adjusting the thoughts that lead to unhelpful emotions. Trying to deny or hide the way you feel can actually damage the relationship rather than strengthen it.
- Practice mindfulness and slow down before reacting. In order to thoughtfully respond to your emotions (either within yourself or your reaction to others), you have to be able to slow yourself down. It’s normal to react without thinking, and in fact, that’s a survival skill that the brain has developed to ensure safety. But speaking your mind without a filter isn’t always the best way to build relationships or to accurately and productively communicate your perspective. Use mindfulness to practice slowing down your reactions or simply take one deep breath before responding to emotionally intense situations.
- Focus on emotional awareness. Slowing down can help you check your response, and it’s a chance to really get clarity on what you’re feeling. Emotions are complex, and often the emotion you initially want to express isn’t the main one you feel. For example, if your child runs towards the road, you might respond with anger but chances are you’re actually more fearful than upset. By becoming more aware of your driving emotions, you’ll be better able to regulate yourself and respond to others. Try labeling your emotions and scale (for example, 1–10) how intensely you feel them too.
- Adjust thoughts to adjust your emotions. Thoughts lead to feelings that lead to actions and reactions. Imagine if your dog gets loose in the yard. If you believe your partner left the gate open, you might feel angry and frustrated. But if you think maybe there’s a hole in the fence, you might feel concerned or curious as to how it got there. Same situation, but the way you think about it and what you believe changes how you feel. With practice it’s possible to willfully shift your mindset to make your emotions more manageable and appropriate to a given situation.
- Accept what you cannot change. There might be times when you cannot adjust your beliefs or a situation brings out emotions that are appropriate—but intense, unhelpful, or unpleasant. When that happens, accept what you feel rather than piling on the negativity. For example, if you get angry at your toddler, try not to let yourself get disappointed for being angry. Judging yourself for how you feel only doubles what you have to manage.
- Don’t lose sight of your goals. While it can be hard to remember your ultimate goal when your emotions get amped up, it’s important to take a second and reconnect with what matters. For example, when your teammate is struggling with a task that impacts you or the mission, your first reaction might be to show anger and respond from a place of stress. But that’s not likely to help the situation or your teammate. Use a deep breath to take control and ask yourself:
- What outcome do I expect from sharing my emotion in this way?
- Is there a way to mindfully express this emotion?
- Can I proceed constructively?
- Develop coping strategies that work for you. When it comes down to it, you have to find ways to cope with strong emotions that will work best for you in the context of your relationships. Take some time to write out different ways to address intense feelings and then put them into practice. Consider long-term ideas (such as regularly practicing mindfulness, getting restful sleep, or exercising) as well as heat-of-the-moment tactics (such as taking a break from the situation, using deep breathing, or distracting yourself).