Instead of falling prey to our feelings, we can choose how we respond to them, even when they seem overwhelming.
By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
In my previous article, I discussed how we can traverse the crests and troughs of life more smoothly if we learn to regulate our emotions. Instead of falling prey to our feelings, we can choose how we respond to them, even when they seem overwhelming. I introduced the RULER model for emotional management put forth by Yale psychologist, Marc Brackett and described the first two steps of this model. First, we need to ‘R’cognize our feelings and then try to ‘U’nderstand the various contextual factors at play. In today’s article, I spell out the remaining three steps of Brackett’s model.
The third step of ‘L’abeling the emotion, is itself a form of self-regulation, asserts Brackett. Research indicates that the very act of labeling a feeling as ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’ reduces activation in brain regions typically associated with these emotions, while increasing activation in areas linked with affective regulation. Only when we label the emotion, can we truly understand it. When we feel a cornucopia of emotions at the same time, naming each of them will help us understand their various pulls and tugs on us. Brackett also urges us to expand our emotional vocabularies so that we make nuanced distinctions, like nervous vs. scared vs. panicked. When we label our emotions precisely, it helps us organize our experiences and we can also convey and understand our needs and those of others more adroitly.
After identifying and naming the emotion, we need to ‘E’xpress it in socially- and contextually-appropriate ways. While the expression of positive emotions typically cements relationships, we also need to moderate how we convey negative emotions. Contrary to what people associate with the term “expressing emotions,” Brackett does not advocate giving vent by kicking, screaming or crying. Instead, we need to find suitable forums where we can air our emotions, be it confiding in a close friend, a therapist or even penning down our thoughts and feelings in a private journal.
The final step of RULER involves ‘R’egulating our emotions. This is the hardest and probably the most significant of the five skills, though, at times, we may exhibit some form of regulation without being fully conscious of our actions. For example, if your dad asks you when you plan to get married for the nth time, you may automatically pause what you are doing and take a deep breath. That is a form of regulation.
According to Brackett, there are five broad categories of strategies of emotional regulation. The first, called mindful breathing, which some people use instinctually, involves slowing the body and mind down, so that we can think more cogently instead of reacting on the fly. You may cultivate the habit of breathing mindfully by doing it initially for short periods of time, like a couple of minutes and then gradually increasing the duration. According to research, a daily practice of mindful breathing for fifteen-minutes a day can temper your emotional reactivity.
The second category includes prospective strategies wherein we anticipate some negative emotions and either avoid a situation entirely or alter it in some way. For example, if you find a colleague particularly irksome, you may choose to sit at another table at lunch. Or, if you dread the traffic bottlenecks on your cab ride home, you may listen to music or audio books to make the commute more palatable.
Focusing your attention elsewhere is another strategy you can deploy when you feel overwhelmed. If you are undergoing a painful dental procedure, you may visualize the ice cream treat you promised yourself after the ordeal. Instead of biting your nails while you wait for the results of your Covid-19 test, you spend the afternoon watching a feel-good flick. Brackett cautions us that this strategy must be used with discretion; if we are using distraction to avoid tackling the problem facing us, then it could backfire. However, distraction is useful if we need to cool down to think clearly or if we are faced with a problem over which we have no control.
The fourth group of strategies, called cognitive-reframing involves viewing the situation from alternative perspectives, which then changes how we feel about it. Ideally, we reappraise a situation to help us feel better about it. For example, if a friend cancels on you three times in a row, you may think that he or she is not invested in your friendship. Alternatively, if you don’t give into the first automatic thoughts, you may realize that your friend is under a lot of stress right now. Besides being recently divorced, he is also under financial pressure and has some health issues. So, instead of feeling peeved or hurt by your friend, you are now overcome with empathy. According to Brackett, imaging studies show that reframing a situation in such a manner actually reduces activation in brain regions associated with anxiety. Again, this strategy has to be deployed prudently.
The last group is what Brackett refers to as “Meta-Moment,” wherein we respond based on how we would like our “best selves” to act. Often, we react to a situation only to regret how we acted. Given a second chance, we would probably respond differently. Our best self is an ideal image we have of ourselves; it’s how we would like to be perceived both by ourselves and others. So, Brackett urges us to pause, imagine how our best selves would behave in such a situation and then strategize what our next move should be. Initially, we may not be able to use this technique when we have to make quick decisions; however, as we persist in executing measured and deliberate responses, our best and real selves may converge more often.
(The author is an avid blogger. Her forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know will be released by Rupa Publications.)