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Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation

Regulating our emotions and expressing them in a healthy and effective way can be challenging. Many of us are not taught how to regulate our emotions and express them in a way that will still get our needs met. There are varying reasons why so many people struggle with healthy emotional expression. Two reasons that I see most commonly are: 1) Lack of Skill: You were never taught how to express your emotions in an effective way. Perhaps those around you did not model healthy and effective emotion regulation and expression, or maybe you only got your needs met when you were highly emotional (e.g. think about a child throwing a “temper tantrum” to get attention or to let his parent know how upset he is). 2) Emotion myths: Perhaps you were taught that certain emotions were “bad” or that showing emotions make you a weak person.

Regardless of why effective emotion regulation and expression are difficult, mindfulness can be a helpful tool to use when trying to learn healthy emotional expression. Emotions are complex responses, involving both our minds and bodies. Mindfulness can help us tune into the entire emotional response – the internal experience (e.g. changes in heart rate, temperature, muscle tension, breathing, action urges, etc.) and the external expression (e.g. facial expression, what we say, how we say it, action we take, etc.).  We can use mindfulness to be more aware of what we are experiencing on the inside and how we are expressing it on the outside.

In order to regulate and express emotions in a healthy way, we have to first understand that emotions have a purpose. They are adaptive and give us important information about internal and external events.  They help motivate action and communicate information to others around us. For example, anger motivates us to work towards change when there’s something we dislike about a situation. Fear and anxiety communicate that something is potentially dangerous to us, motivating us to leave the situation or protect ourselves. Love connects us to other people. Sadness lets us and others know that we need some support or comfort. Shame and guilt help keep members of society in line—they ensure that everyone does not just do whatever they want and hurt others. The goal here is to figure out what that emotion is communicating to us in order to effectively manage and express it.

We might first use mindfulness to describe what we are experiencing internally (those biological changes I mentioned earlier) and expressing externally (those facial and bodily changes I mentioned earlier) in order to name the emotion we are experiencing. For example, we might notice our face getting warmer, our hands starting to sweat and tighten into fist, our breathing becoming more rapid, our heart rate increasing, our teeth clenching, and our brow furrowing. We might also use mindfulness to notice that we have an urge to yell, slam doors, or throw something. Being mindful of this entire process, we can label the emotion as anger.  When being mindful, we might notice that the emotion comes and goes like a wave on the beach –it will build up, peak, and then gradually subside. When we are mindful of this process, we are less likely to get hooked into unhelpful rumination.

Taking it a step further, we can allow ourselves to take a moment to breathe mindfully and check in with ourselves about what this emotion is communicating to us. We might notice that the anger was triggered by a family member yelling at us, which we interpreted as a verbal attack. We can then take a moment to decide how to communicate that anger to this family member in a way that won’t make the situation worse (i.e. more stressful or harder to manage). We might decide to tell her, “I’m feeling angry right now about you yelling at me. Let’s talk about this in an hour when we’ve both had a chance to cool down so we don’t say hurtful things we don’t mean.” However, if you hadn’t used mindfulness and had been unmindful of the emotional process, you might have lashed out by yelling back, name calling, and maybe even throwing something at her, all of which could potentially damage an important relationship. Being mindful allows us to understand why we are experiencing a certain emotion and to regain control over how we express that emotion.

While I used anger as an example, we can become mindful of all emotions. When we are mindful, we can decide to take a moment to check in with ourselves about what’s going on internally and externally. We can give ourselves a moment to decide what action(s) to take in order to express that emotion in a way that will get our needs met, help us maintain our self-respect, and not damage a relationship or make the situation more stressful.

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