How We Can Better Control Our Emotions
Our emotions drive our behaviors throughout life.
Posted January 14, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- We tend to become upset when bad events occur outside of our control.
- Emotional control can be affected adversely when we are tired, overwhelmed, hungry, or in pain.
- Self-calming techniques using hypnosis can be helpful in learning how to better regulate emotions.
As infants, our emotional expression is our primary mode of communication: Crying when we are distressed or laughing and smiling when we are happy. We tend to become upset (e.g., angry, sad, or frustrated) when bad events occur outside of our control or when we find that we cannot control a situation to our liking.
As we become older and become aware of more events outside of our immediate environment, as well as how little we can control situations, including those involving other people, the number of potential triggers of our negative emotions greatly increases.
Further, the potency of emotional outbursts can also increase with age, from crying to yelling, hitting, self-injurious behavior, or even more violent behavior. Emotional control can be affected by our psychological state, such as when we are tired or overwhelmed, or by our physical state, such as when we are hungry or in pain.
Fluctuations in the body’s chemical state can cause emotions to be more difficult to manage. This can occur because of natural hormonal cycles in teens and adults or as a side-effect of medications. Changes in our neurological state also can affect emotional control, such as in the developing brain of adolescents and patients suffering from dementia.
Fortunately, as we become older, we also can learn to express our feelings through words and thoughtful actions and to control or channel our emotional reactions in a constructive way.
Emotional Regulation Approaches Vary With Age
An infant or toddler can usually be soothed by an adult talking quietly, rocking, hugging, or redirecting their attention. As children become older, they can be taught to use words and constructive actions to express their emotions. The adults in their lives can serve as role models regarding how to manage emotions. When people struggle to regulate their emotions, they are sometimes referred for counseling. The counseling strategies vary with age, as follows.
Preschoolers typically enjoy listening to stories. Therefore, I often write a story with them illustrated by pictures my patients pick from the internet. I copy and paste these pictures into little “books” they can take home with them. The theme of the stories involves characters who have difficulty managing their emotions. I ask the patients what solution(s) they might have for emotional outbursts and incorporate those ideas into the stories.
Other elements that can be added to the stories include friends, trusted adults, or even wizards who can give good advice regarding how to manage strong emotions. Sometimes, I include a narrative about how the main character can earn rewards for good behavior. I then tell the preschoolers that they can earn a similar reward for managing their strong emotions.
I instruct the preschoolers’ caregivers to read the story to their children on a regular basis, although, in many instances, the children end up telling/reading the story to their caregivers. Typically, their emotional regulation improves concurrently as they apply the solutions offered in the story.
Also, I teach caregivers that preschoolers can be calmed by speaking to them with quiet and comforting language, including lovingly using their first name, offering hugs, and spending quality time with them.
I discuss with children and their caregivers how to identify early signs of frustration so that they can employ emotional regulation techniques before their emotions spiral out of control. Also, I explain to the caregivers that if their children are emotionally out-of-control, it is unhelpful to talk with them while they are very upset, as they will be unable to process much input. Rather, caregivers should wait until their children are calmer to discuss how they might better handle future potential triggers of their emotional outbursts.
School-age children are often interested in superheroes, Pokemon, and Disney characters. I ask children of this age to name their favorite calm character. I suggest that when they want to calm themselves, they can pretend to turn into this character, including by imagining what they might be wearing as the character and how their clothes might feel to the touch. I suggest that since the character usually is calm, by pretending to be that character, they can calm down.
Emotion Regulation Essential Reads
Many other imagery techniques utilize metaphors to change emotional state. For example, children can be coached to imagine placing their negative emotions into a balloon full of helium and letting it go. As the balloon becomes more distant, the strength of the emotions can decrease. Some children learn to regulate their emotions by manipulating an imaginary control panel, similar to the one featured in the 2015 animated movie Inside Out.
With school-age and older youth, I introduce the concept that how we think affects how we feel. Thus, if we think about an event in an upsetting way, we will likely become angry or sad. On the other hand, if we think about the same event in a different way, we can be calm.
For example, children may become upset when they have done poorly on a school test. Another way to think about this situation is to figure out what can be done in the future to improve test performance. By focusing on achieving a good outcome, the negative emotions from the poor grade can dissipate more easily.
I teach my patients that they can better control their emotions by channeling them into constructive activities such as sports, gaming, listening to music, and creative activities such as art, writing, and playing a musical instrument.
Another physical way of channeling emotions involves instructing children how to breathe in slowly through their noses, hold their breath for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through their mouths for a few breath cycles. Children can also be taught to clap their hands when they are excited, seek a hug when they are sad, fidget with a toy when they are nervous, or squeeze a stress ball when angry.
Once children learn to regulate their emotions and remain calm, it is important to discuss the reason(s) for their emotional reaction or to suggest that they take some time for self-reflection. When appropriate, it can be very helpful to offer suggestions regarding how the child might deal better with a triggering situation.
For example, children who are saddened about the loss of a friend who moved away can be counseled that they can still keep in touch through the internet or that this will allow them to make new friends.
Learning how to avoid triggers of their negative emotions is yet another strategy that is helpful in this age group. For example, a child can be taught to walk away from a younger sibling who is acting in an annoying fashion or to be prepared to use self-calming techniques whenever they interact with their sibling.
Another common trigger occurs when a caregiver asks the child to switch from an activity they like to one in which they are uninterested, e.g., stopping a video game so that they can complete their homework. Helpful ways to avoid such triggering include letting the child plan a precise daily activity schedule, e.g., deciding ahead of time when they will switch activities and offering to reward the child with additional opportunities to engage in their desired activities when they are cooperative with the caregiver.
Teenagers and Adults
I remind adolescents that their emotional reactions are in part dictated by learning how to cope with more intense emotions that occur because of their maturing brains and hormonal changes. I reassure them that with practice, as they become older, they will have an easier time coping with their feelings.
In addition to the emotional control techniques used with school-age children, self-calming techniques using hypnosis can be very helpful with adolescents and adults who seek to regulate their emotions better.
Patients can be taught to use hypnosis to become relaxed by imagining themselves to be in a calm place. They then learn how to trigger a similar calmness at will by using a physical gesture such as making a sign with their hand (e.g., crossing their fingers), tapping their foot, or taking a slow deep breath. I encourage patients to trigger their relaxation response on frequent occasions so that it can become second nature.
Teenagers and adults can also better regulate their emotions by learning how to consult with their subconscious, which can provide them with calming input. In my experience, a patient’s subconscious often is significantly calmer than their conscious state, and better able to react to difficult situations with equanimity. Patients can learn to share their subconscious calmness with their conscious selves.
More information about hypnosis and its use for emotional regulation including through interactions with the subconscious is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.