I’m Overwhelmed. What Can I Do?
How flexible emotion regulation can help improve your mental health.
Posted November 15, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- There are multiple approaches to emotion regulation, including reappraisal, suppression, and rumination.
- The ability to flexibly deploy different emotion regulation strategies is key to mental health.
- Research on the "thinking threshold" suggests that, when one experiences intense negative emotions, it's harder to use cognitive strategies.
- When past the "thinking threshold," body-focused or behavioral approaches may be the most helpful.
Co-authored by Ellie Xu and Darby Saxbe
Imagine you’re organizing your first dinner party: You spent all day cooking, and you’re excited for your five best friends to come over so you can all catch up on each other’s lives. The table is set, the candles are burning, and the champagne is about to be popped. Then, you get a text: Two of your best friends can’t make it last minute. You feel disappointed and sad.
How do you respond to these negative feelings? It turns out, how you respond to them (and whether you respond in a flexible way, that best fits the needs of the situation) can affect your mental health.
Do you try to see the situation more positively, by focusing on feeling grateful for your friends who were able to make it? If so, you are engaging in cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing something in a more positive way.
Do you ignore, or suppress, those feelings of sadness? This is referred to as emotional suppression.
Do you think about why two of your best friends weren’t able to make it, over and over again? This is called rumination.
Cognitive reappraisal, emotional suppression, and rumination are just a few examples of emotion regulation strategies. Emotion regulation strategies refer to techniques that people use to manage their emotions. Research shows that certain emotion regulation strategies may benefit your mental health and well-being more than others. For example, cognitive reappraisal seems to lead to greater well-being and better mental health outcomes, whereas the opposite is true for emotional suppression and rumination.
Cognitive reappraisal (i.e., reframing something in a more positive way) is typically a helpful way to regulate your emotions and can be particularly helpful when a situation is uncontrollable. For example, you can’t control how many friends show up to your dinner party, so it can be helpful to focus on the positive and feel grateful for your friends that did show up to your dinner party. However, cognitive reappraisal may not be as helpful when you can control the situation.
Take this as an example—let’s say you failed a midterm exam in your physics class, you’re feeling sad, and you decide to use cognitive reappraisal to help reframe the situation. You might think, “Oh, the midterm exam is only 40 percent of my grade, and my physics grade doesn’t determine the rest of my life." Though this might be true, making yourself feel better about failing your test could lead you to feel less motivated to work hard to perform well on your final exam. So, cognitive reappraisal might not always be the best strategy to use, since it can affect your motivation to respond to those feelings of sadness in a more adaptive way, by studying harder for your next test, in situations that you can control.
This goes to illustrate that, rather than using cognitive reappraisal all the time, it’s important to change your use of emotion regulation strategies to best fit the needs of the specific situation in which you’re regulating your emotions. This is known as emotion regulation flexibility.
With emotion regulation flexibility in mind, a research group recently developed the idea of a “thinking threshold." The “thinking threshold” suggests that, when we’re experiencing intense negative emotions (such as intense feelings of sadness), there’s a certain point at which we’re not able to think clearly because our thinking is impaired. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmingly sad that your two best friends can’t make it to the dinner party, you might be above the “thinking threshold." When we’re above the “thinking threshold," it may be helpful to respond to our intense negative emotions with more behavioral and bodily-focused emotion regulation strategies.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling a little sad but you’re still excited about the dinner party, you likely are below the “thinking threshold." When we’re below the “thinking threshold” and we’re able to think clearly, it may be helpful to use cognitive reappraisal and problem-solving to respond to our negative emotions when they’re less intense.
So, when you’re feeling really down and are not confident you can think clearly:
- Focus on bodily-focused strategies to regulate your emotions, such as mindfulness meditation and breathing relaxation techniques. You can find guided mindfulness meditations on phone-based applications, such as Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.
- Focus on behavioral strategies to regulate your emotions, such as behavioral activation. It can be helpful to engage in hobbies and activities that make you feel good, such as exercise, until you can think more clearly about how to manage your negative emotions.
And when you’re feeling down, but the feelings are manageable, and you feel like you can still think clearly:
- Focus on cognitive reappraisal, or reframing things in a more positive way.
- Use problem-solving.
Determining your own “thinking threshold," or when you can and can’t think clearly, can be tricky. Here are some signs that you might be past your own “thinking threshold”:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling panicked
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling drained and exhausted
- Feeling horrible
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