Emotions are signals our bodies send us to tell us what is happening in any given situation. Regulating our emotions is so important, especially if we tend to experience them intensely or we act out on them in unhealthy ways. Below are some questions you can cycle through when an overwhelming situation arises to slow down your emotional process and respond in healthy ways.
1. What happened? Describe the situation that led to your emotions.
2. Why do you think the situation happened? Identify the potential causes of your situation. The meaning you give to the event will help determine what your emotional reaction is to that event.
3. How did the situation make you feel, emotionally and physically? Identify the primary and secondary emotions. The primary emotions will have occurred immediately and as such, we have little control over them. The secondary emotions are emotional reactions to that primary emotion. For example, if someone jumps at you from around the corner, your primary emotion may be fear, and your secondary emotion may be anger because they scared you! Take the time to identify any physical sensations that come up as well.
4. What did you want to do as a result of how you felt? This answer identifies your urges. When overwhelming emotions occur, we can sometimes have an urge to do something drastic or painful. Urges can also occur just as thoughts or impulses. When you are able to notice something unhealthy you want to do and decide to do something else, it shows healthy emotion regulation. Controlling some urges shows we can control other urges.
5. What did you do and say? Identify what you actually did as a result of your emotions. If it is the same answer as your urges, try not to be so hard on yourself. We all give into urges from time to time—the important part is recognizing when we do and using that as a teachable moment to learn from next time.
6. How did your emotions and actions affect you later? Identify the short-term and long-term consequences of what you felt and did.
If you are struggling with regulating overwhelming emotions and are in the Chicagoland area, feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000.
Written by Kathryn
2021 Graduate Intern
Resources: McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2019). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. New Harbinger Publications.