3 Tips to Regain Emotional Control

Red hearts are everywhere in stores as we celebrate Valentine's Day this week. The heart gets all of the credit for emotions, hence the red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. While I'm not arguing for dull white, brain-shaped boxes of chocolate, the brain, as we know, is the actual seat of the emotions. Emotions play a dynamic and important function in many aspects of our lives. Not only are they the foundation of the relationships that make Valentine's Day possible, but they also have a role in motivating us to start tasks and meet our goals. Our brain-based executive functions regulate and control our emotions so that they don't regulate and control us! Those with the executive function deficit we call emotional control may chronically struggle to manage frustration and regulate their emotions. 

Emotional control may be a problem if you or those you know:

  • Don't appropriately handle losing a game or not getting what they want.
  • Get stuck in an unhealthy emotion or feeling and are unable to recover.
  • Experience performance anxiety that prevents them from reflecting what they know or demonstrating what they can do.
  • Rip up their work, hit or kick others, or break things as a response to an obstacle or difficulty.
  • Can be argumentative or defensive with others and struggle to maintain positive social relationships.

These behaviors stem from individuals’ inability to regulate their frustration, anxiety, and similar emotions. Neuroscience tells us that there are regions of our brain where emotions such as fight or flight and pleasure or pain originate. The prefrontal cortex region of our brain is responsible for regulating these areas and ensuring that we use these emotions to understand and interact appropriately with our environment.
The issue of emotional control isn't pervasive for those suffering from this executive function deficit. An important step is to identify when and under what circumstances control is elusive. For example, they may be able to respond appropriately within the structure of their day job, but find it difficult to regulate emotions in the more fluid environment of home, family, and social outings. For some sufferers, transitions, unexpected changes of routine, high-stakes tests or performance reviews, and new social situations trigger the inability to control emotional responses. Once you've identified emotional control triggers, here are three techniques that can help:

Modify the Environment
A common strategy is to identify triggers in the environment and make changes accordingly. For example, if your child struggles to regulate appropriately in a competitive sports situation, he or she may find more success in recreational or individual sports. For the parent coming home from work who doesn't react well to the pressures of home life, he or she may want to take 15 minutes to transition from the work environment before engaging in family questions and issues. Students with test anxiety may benefit from a distraction-free testing environment or receive additional time on tests to reduce time pressure.

Create Alternative Behaviors and Cues
Those who find it difficult to regulate their emotions struggle because the intensity of the emotion overwhelms their control mechanism. During a sudden transition, sufferers are not able to process, at that moment, what impact the changes may have on their schedule, plans, or preparations; so frustration or anxiety takes over. Providing external cues, reminders, or prompts may help them easily and readily regulate their behavior. Suffers can brainstorm alternative behaviors and thoughts when they feel the intense emotion. Place reminders of alternative behaviors on a desk or car dashboard, in work areas, or other places where the emotions are difficult to regulate. Tape a list of problem-solving steps to the desk of students who get stuck on a math problem or a word they don’t understand. These cues help remind sufferers of appropriate reactions and refocus their attention on problem-solving instead of reacting.

It is also helpful to engage a parent, trusted friend or partner to help by reminding sufferers of strategies with a gentle prompt or signal. They may also help rehearse appropriate responses to certain stressful situations. For example, those who tend to overreact at their annual performance review can have that trusted friend assist them to practice appropriate responses to constructive criticism.

Seek Professional Help
Some emotional control issues, however, may be more severe than the strategies I’ve listed can ameliorate. Seek out professional help from psychiatrists, psychologists, or other mental health professionals if the observed or felt emotions are chronic or debilitating. For emotional control issues that are less severe, an executive function skills coach can help you develop strategies to modify your environment or develop cues for alternative behaviors. Don't let deficits in emotional control prevent you from living a productive life and reaching your goals!

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