How to Control Your Emotions, Not Let Them Control You

How to Control Your Emotions, Not Let Them Control You

Some people seem to have no emotions at all. When something upsetting happens, they hardly react. Then there are others who find themselves crying over the smallest of things, like a sad puppy adoption commercial. Emotions range and are experienced by everyone, differently. 

Emotion Dysregulation
For some, emotions can be an aspect of life that means more than just a few noticeable moments of joy or sadness. Some people experience true difficulty and struggle when it comes to their emotions. These people can be seen as passionate or intense. They feel their emotions very deeply, often more deeply than others. And while experiencing emotions is a beautiful, necessary part of life, these people can find themselves being controlled by their emotions, instead of being the one in control. This is what we want to avoid. This post explores how to do that.

Elana Lev, Lindsay Rickel and Laura Twersky are Licensed Clinical Social workers who run their own practice, TLA Therapy. Through their practice, these three women work closely with people who struggle with difficult emotions. 

According to the social workers at TLA Therapy, when someone is being controlled by their emotions they often “engage in behaviors that are impulsive and mood-dependent and that satisfy a short-term goal versus considering the long-term consequences of their behavior.”

Feeling things so immensely that you can no longer control your emotions can be highly damaging to one’s life, especially when it comes to experiencing negative emotions.

“When people are overwhelmed by negative emotion, it can be highly disruptive to their lives. It can be difficult to maintain meaningful relationships, stay focused at work or on other tasks, or even to take care of yourself,” said Dr. Hannah Rivers, a licensed clinical psychologist at Thrive San Luis Obispo.

However, learning to control your emotions, rather than letting them have a hold over you, is possible. Emotion dysregulation doesn’t have to be something you accept as your norm. 

According to the TLA Therapy workers, a motivation to change, learning the necessary skills, and constant practice at those skills are what it takes to finally get control of your emotions. Here’s how:

Breaking Down Emotions
First and foremost, it’s important to understand where emotions come from. According to Dr. Rivers, “emotions are complex internal experiences, that can be either negative or positive. Emotions are often described as our feelings.”

When defined by the clinical social workers at TLA Therapy, emotions are seen as “The intricate interplay of physiological experiences (body sensations and urges), subjective experiences (assumptions and interpretations) and behavioral expressions (actions and behaviors) in response to an internal or external stimulus.”

Emotions come about as a result of a situation. First, the situation that warrants a reaction takes place. You get yelled at by your boss, you watch a sad movie, etc. Then comes your interpretation of said situation. Your boss scolding you makes you feel like your superior thinks you’re stupid, or it could leave you believing you’re not as valuable as your other fellow employees. 

Your reaction determines your subsequent emotion, which follows only after you have made that interpretation. Believing your boss thinks you’re stupid or incompetent could lead to you feeling either angry or very sad. The crazy thing is, that sometimes your internal interpretation of a situation can happen so fast and so subconsciously that you aren’t even aware of it. So, your following emotions can be more intense than appropriate or can come out of nowhere … or so you think.

Now, here’s the key part. Your emotions are not facts.
Your boss thinking you’re stupid or not valuable probably is not true. Your emotional response to that interpretation is simply a response, not a fact. The sooner you can learn that your emotions are just the way you’re feeling at a given moment and are not stone- cold facts, then the quicker you’ll be able to get difficult emotions under control.

Ways to Deal With Harmful Emotions
How can we manage negative emotions? Thankfully, there are many ways of learning to do this.

“There are a variety of ways that someone might cope with their emotions. Grounding, mindfulness, and self-soothing techniques are important ways to learn to comfort yourself and stay present when experiencing intense emotions. People often also can learn to talk back to negative thoughts and rationally respond to intense negative emotions. Some people do this on their own, while others might learn these skills in cognitive behavioral therapy,” said Dr. Rivers.

Validation
As a starting step to any of these methods, remember that your emotions are not facts. Once you grasp that, you must then learn to validate your emotions

Your feelings are always valid. If something makes you feel angry, anxious, scared or upset, then that is valid. Just because someone else might feel a different way to the same thing does not mean you’re wrong. Telling yourself that how you’re feeling is valid will help you understand and move on from harmful emotions much faster than pushing them away or judging yourself for them will. So, practice validating yourself.

A way of doing this is to through a method known as “describing” or “naming,” Here, you name your emotions as they come up. When you feel sad, say in your head, “Ok, I’m feeling sad.” Pinpoint each emotion as it arises and allow yourself to accept that’s how you’re feeling. Trying to ignore those emotions and feelings will only lead to you experiencing them more. But accepting and acknowledging their presence can help to calm you and allow you to see the emotion differently.

No Judgement Allowed
After validating your emotions, you must then learn to not judge them. You may be at a point where you can recognize what emotion you’re feeling, describe it to yourself and allow yourself to feel whatever that emotion is, but from there you need to be able to not judge yourself for having that emotion. Essentially, it means adding on another component to validating, naming or describing your emotions. Instead of saying “Ok, I’m feeling sad.” You say, “Ok, I’m feeling sad. That’s alright!”

Instead of getting angry at yourself for crying, or telling yourself you’re stupid for feeling so angry at a situation, give yourself a break and allow the emotion to arise and pass without judgment. This can also be used when applied to how you feel about someone other than yourself too.

“I strive to use mindfulness every day, particularly a skill called ‘nonjudgmentalness.’ When we are nonjudgmental towards ourselves and others, it helps us develop much more accurate appraisals of what is going on in the world vs. what we think is going on. It also helps with self-compassion,” explained the social workers at TLA Therapy.

Radical Acceptance
Another method of dealing with harsh emotions is to practice radical acceptance. Half the time when we’re emotional it’s because we don’t like what’s happening and want it to change. However, if we learn to accept things as they come, we can better control our emotional reactions.

Radical acceptance is the idea of letting go and no longer fighting something you can’t even control in the first place. It means clearly and deliberately choosing to say, “Alright, it is what it is, shrug it off and move on.”

You’ll know you’ve achieved this when your perspective towards the problem shifts, you feel a sense of peace and are thinking more clearly. Often, intense emotions come from fear of not being able to control or change a situation. But if you’re able to take a step back and allow that event to be what it is, the emotions won’t start to have such a hold anymore, it’ll stop mattering as much. 

Mindfulness
One of the methods to controlling emotions that Dr. Roberts suggested is mindfulness. This concept isn’t new. In fact, it’s an increasingly popular practice going around society today. The idea behind mindfulness, as Dr. Roberts defines it, is “being aware of the moment and your thoughts to stay present and calm.”

Mindfulness can help your mood shift as it gives you a new perspective and sense of clarity. It allows you to sort through painful emotions and respond to them more calmly. When you focus on one thing at a time, the endless chatter in your mind slows and settles and you experience events more fully, allowing for more joy. 

Both radical acceptance and mindfulness are parts of a specific type of therapy which we will be discussing below.

DBT Therapy
One of the most widely used methods to help people cope with emotion dysregulation is a specific therapy known as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). This form of therapy is practiced by those who attend TLA Therapy. Developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Marsha Linehan, DBT is a cognitive behavioral treatment that aimed to give you a variety of tools and skills to manage your emotions.

This therapy method includes four different modules that participants go through. These modules include mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotion regulation. The emotion regulation and distress tolerance modules are used most for teaching people to manage their emotions.

“It often depends on the intensity in which an individual is feeling a certain emotion as to which skill is best applied for that situation. For example, if someone is feeling anger at a really high level (i.e. they are so angry they want to punch the wall) they may need to utilize skills from Distress Tolerance which are skills reserved for crisis situations. Alternatively, if an individual is feeling an emotion at a more tolerable level they may apply a skill from Emotion Regulation,” explained TLA Therapy.

Through these modules, people learn coping methods such as “distracting, self-soothing, improving the moment, and thinking of pros and cons of using skills. Emotion regulation skills may include techniques such as: learning to properly identify and label emotions (as explained above); identifying obstacles to changing emotions; reducing vulnerability to “emotion mind”; increasing positive emotional events; increasing mindfulness to current emotion, and taking opposite action to that emotion,” explains TLA Therapy.

For those who are at the end of their rope when it comes to dealing with their emotions, DBT is a tried and true method used to help manage them. Even if you do not feel that your emotion dysregulation is at a point where therapy is needed, the ideas and coping strategies used in DBT can be useful by all. 

These methods and explanations are a few of many that people can learn to take control of their emotions. Nobody wants to live with their reactions under the command of their emotions. And, if this is a problem you’ve experienced, then you can rest easy knowing there are others working through the same problems and that by using the above approaches, many have found peace and relief. 

The therapies and modalities discussed in this post are not intended as a replacement for the reader’s individual counseling, but rather as an example of some of the techniques used in therapy. Readers should consult their own physicians or therapists to determine the best program for their individual recovery from anxiety.

Photo credit: Unsplash by Elijah Hiett