When we are overly stressed and worried it becomes even more difficult to regulate our emotions with effective strategies. Emotion regulation is how we deal with the feelings we experience from moment to moment to have wellbeing, build positive relationships and achieve desired goals. It’s helpful to think about emotion regulation in two parts: goals and strategies.
The first part is our goal. Goals we have for our emotions are like goals in many sports: we look at the net or goalposts, and we decide where we want the ball to go. When we set a goal for regulating our emotions, we are deciding where we want our emotions to go. Do we want them to go up—like feeling even more joyful about a party we’re planning? Or do we want our emotions to go down—like feeling less anxious about our ability to control what’s happening in our environment. In sports, we have a goal that includes where the ball is now and where we want it to be. With our emotions, we do the same—we set a goal by asking ourselves “what am I feeling now, and how do I want to feel?”
The second part of managing emotions is the strategy we decide to use. We know where we want the ball to go, but how will we get it there? Will we hit it straight in? Or will we pass it to another player first? That is our strategy. Strategies are how we will achieve our goals. If we’re feeling anxious or worried about what’s happening around us, and we really want to feel less nervous or calmer, what would our
What can help
- Because emotion regulation requires brainpower—it depends on seemingly unrelated factors such as diet, exercise and sleep. When we eat poorly, our minds don’t function properly. Too much sugar causes our blood glucose to spike and then plummet, which affects cognitive functioning and self-control, especially around healthy eating. So make sure you have some healthy snacks in your desk at work or set a reminder on your phone to ensure you nibble every few hours or so.
- Too little physical activity also has a negative effect on our mental capacity and moods. In one study, subjects were exposed to a stressor, and then half of the participants did aerobic exercise while the others did not. The exercisers reported feeling significantly less negative than the other group. Even anxiety and depression can be reduced by exercise. Make sure you are getting in some movement.
- Poor quality or insufficient sleep has similar effects on our emotions—when we’re tired, our defences are down and our ability to function mentally is low. Sleep serves a restorative function. When we don’t get enough, or we get too much, we show more symptoms of anxiety and depression, greater fatigue, and hostility. Inadequate sleep is associated with reduced connections between brain regions responsible for cognitive control and behaviour and the use of effective emotion regulation strategies.
- Do things you love. Spend time with family and friends, pursue passions and pastimes, get in touch with your spiritual side, immerse yourself in nature, read a good book or watch a funny movie. We build up cognitive reserves that way, which can help us during these emotionally challenging times. We are hardwired to seek social contact and support—people who lack it are prone to anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease. Social distance, which we know will help spread the coronavirus does not mean we have to socially disconnect!
- Control the amount of information you take in. Take breaks from reading the news and social media.
- Try your best to support friends, family members, and co-workers who are feeling anxious or worried. When we support others, we not only help them, but we feel better ourselves.