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Emotional regulation

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Emotional regulation (also Emotional self-regulation, or Emotion Regulation) or simply ER, is being able to properly regulate one's emotions. It is a complex process that involves the initiating, inhibiting, or modulating the following aspects of functioning[1]:

  1. internal feeling states (i.e. the subjective experience of emotion),
  2. emotion-related cognitions (e.g. thought reactions to a situation),
  3. emotion-related physiological processes (e.g. heart rate, hormonal, or other physiological reactions), and
  4. emotion-related behavior (e.g. actions or facial expressions related to emotion).

It's attainment is a mark of emotional maturity and its lack associated with emotional immaturity. It is an aspect of both self control and self regulation.

Day to day

Emotional regulation refers to processes such as; the tendency to maintain attention on a task and the ability to suppress inappropriate behavior under instruction.[2]

On a day to day basis people are constantly being exposed to a huge variety of potentially arousing stimuli. Such stimuli range widely, anything from an upset stomach to listening to music to talking about what happened last night on TV. Since in many cases social norms would deem inappropriate extreme or un checked emotional reactions to such stimuli. people must engage in some form of emotion regulation almost all of the time.[3]

The majority of people are flexible in respect to dealing with emotions and can effectively manage more extreme emotional states, therefore enabling them to live contently most of the time. However, some do lack certain basic skill sets and can therefore be placed into the category of poor self-regulators.

Poor self-regulators may be people who get angry and take their frustration out on other people or themselves. Poor self regulators also often unknowingly exhibit facial expressions that seem contrary to what is normative in a given situation. Poor self regulators are often deemed socially awkward because they are unable to control their (happy or sad) emotions properly.

Importance of healthy ER

Humans are highly attuned to detecting the appropriateness of (various) facial expressions. They easily notice inconsistencies, and form judgments accordingly. People unknowingly mimic facial expressions and can detect when behavior is out of the ordinary. When one wishes to mask true emotion, and thereby control what others see, one needs to be able to properly regulate emotion and facial expression.

We have considerable control over our facial expressions both consciously and unconsciously. This is why a young child will look utterly devastated when receiving a pair of underwear on Christmas morning, but a teenager is often able to muster a weak grin and even say thank you when that is not what they are truly feeling. He has learned the importance of masking his emotions in order to achieve a goal.

Emotional self-regulation focuses on providing the appropriate emotion in the appropriate circumstance. If you laugh at a funeral people will take notice of the odd behavior. If a man cries while watching something with his friends, he will be judged. If a woman acts cold and distant to her crying child, her friends will be taken aback. These are all instances when emotion regulation would be proper precautionary techniques, by knowing the situation and what is appropriate during it you can act in a manner that wont arouse suspicions. Regulating emotions isn’t always about masking or facial expressions, it can also be used as a way to calm one's self down, or to refrain from contentious behavior or getting in to a fight. ER is also a way to help relieve stress, one example: one might write in a journal about the significant parts of one's day.

Healthy self-regulation is related to the capacity to tolerate the sensations of distress that accompany an unmet need. The first time an infant feels hunger, she feels discomfort, then distress and then she cries--- until an attuned adult responds. After thousands of cycles of hunger, discomfort, distress, response, and satisfaction, the child (usually) learns that this feeling of discomfort, even distress, will soon pass. An adult will come.

The attuned, responsive teacher helps the child build in the capacity to put a moment between the impulse and the action.[4] Therefore, young children who have yet to become successful self-regulators will yell and scream when they don’t get their way over any number of things, for instance, taking turns.

Over time children normally learn that everyone will get a turn, they just may have to wait a little longer than they'd like. The absence of yelling or throwing a fit in situations like these, is indicative of a child who has learned to 'self-regulate'. A still more complex instance of emotional self- regulation would be that of a teenager who masks disappointment (over a birthday gift that he or she didn’t like) .... with feigned gratitude.

At this point the teenager has regulated his emotions to avoid hurting his parents feelings. In addition to the smile and the thank you, this involves a complex cognitive response . As one gets older one generally learns the advantages of appropriately self-regulating one's behaviors. Proper emotion regulation can help us mask our intentions or feelings and help us achieve our goals in the social realm. Proper regulation can also serve as a way to cool down after an argument. A failure to properly self-regulate can be associated with ineptitude, ingratitude and can be negatively correlated with 'liking' and 'acceptance' by peers.

In agitated states

There are numerous instances of emotional self-regulation when we are in an agitated state. This would certainly be true of the 3 year old child who cries when he doesn’t get what he wants. It would also be true of the seven year old who waits patiently to go to the toy section of the Target (ie Dept) store, while his mother looks at sheets.

The seven year old has learned what the 3 year old hasn’t. He has learned to regulate and control his frustration because he knows that if he does he will be rewarded, this is an example of a learned behavior.

Children that demonstrate knowledge of learned behaviors are more likely to maintain attention and composure when working on difficult tasks. Children who can’t properly regulate their emotions run the risk of becoming social pariahs. Such social ineptitude is caused by continual and sustained absence of proper ER and is accumulative.

How people deal with the emotion of anger is most revealing. People who properly regulate their emotions when they are angry may choose to let their frustration out in healthy ways; like working out(exercising), or writing a letter about how they feel. Poor regulators don’t. Poor regulators tend to not consider such options as good enough and therefore lash out (in sometimes violent manners) because they lack the ability/skills to state how they feel in any other way.


Some people utilize meditation and other stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness to help calm and soothe themselves and to maintain or regain composure, for some prayer and religious beliefs are used in similar fashion.

A good method often suggested for younger people to calm themselves, is the 'count to 20' --while slowly and taking deep breaths-- technique. Sometimes a so called 'time out' (or a long walk, see section on exercise below ) is necessary or helpful to cool the nerves/emotions.

Some people learn how to control their facial expressions and have an internal cooling down method. Sometimes all it takes is a little common sense to put feelings into perspective and overcome the bad experience.


There are three possibilities for how a child’s self-regulation is formed. Some theorists argue that it is formed based solely on the child and how good the child is at emotionally self-regulating. Other theorists believe that our ability to regulate our emotions and behaviors is formed during our time at school, many theorists claim that the ability is developed as early as kindergarten. They believe that the start of formal schooling is a critical point at which a child’s performance at school has lasting effects that matter for their academic success (2). The last point argued by theorists is that emotion regulation is determined by the child’s socioeconomic status. Poverty is argued to have a negative impact on young children's emotional development by increasing infants’ risk of exposure to a set of prenatal and perinatal factors that negatively affect their neurological, attentional, and affective development(6). It is necessary to note that most young children do not develop emotional and behavioral difficulty(7).

Effects of low self regulation

With a failure in emotional regulation there is a rise in psychosocial and emotional dysfunctions[5] caused by traumatic experiences due to an inability to regulate emotions. These traumatic experiences typically happen in grade school and are sometimes associated with bullying. Children who can’t properly self-regulate express their volatile emotions in a variety of ways, including screaming if they don't have their way, lashing out with their fists, or bullying other children. Such behaviours often elicit negative reactions from the social environment(3), which, in turn, can exacerbate or maintain the original regulation problems over time, a process termed cumulative continuity(4). These children are more likely to have conflict based relationships with their teachers and other children. This can lead to more severe problems such as an impaired ability to adjust to school and predicts school dropout many years later.(5) As the children who fail to properly self-regulate become teenagers new problems will begin to emerge. Their peers begin to notice this “immaturity”, and these children are often excluded from social groups and teased and harassed by their peers. This “immaturity” certainly causes some teenagers to become social pariahs in their respective social groups, causing them to lash out in angry and potentially violent ways. Being teased or being a pariah in your teenage years is especially damaging and could lead to a dysfunctional future, which is why it is extremely important to inculcate emotional self-regulation in children as early as possible.

In adults

There are many categories through which people (primarily adults) can control or regulate their emotions, which can be further divided into other subcategories. There are also specific points before and after the emotion has been triggered. The two main strategies one can employ to regulate their emotions are

  1. . Antecedent-Focused Strategies and
  2. . Response Focused Strategies.

Antecedent-Focused Strategies refer to the things one does before they experience a certain emotion and can influence their behavior and physiological responses. This is basically when a person knows that certain stimuli can trigger negative emotions and chooses to avoid them. Next, Response Focused strategies refer to what happens after the emotion has already been triggered and what the person might do to conceal the said emotion.[6] As I stated earlier, there are different stages when a person can regulate an emotion as they develop, five of them to be exact:

  1. Selection of the Situation
  2. Modification of the Situation
  3. Deployment of Attention
  4. Change of Cognition.
  5. Response Modulation.[6]

The Selection of the Situation refers to the situation the person chooses to be involved in that might cause her to react emotionally. Next, Modification of the Situation is when the circumstances of the situation can be made to soften its emotional impact. Thirdly, Deployment of Attention is the stage where a person chooses to focus on other parts of the situation at hand. Change of Cognition is the way the person decides to interpret or the situation like looking at the advantages of the situation or even putting it in context of other bigger events (i.e., looking at the bigger picture). Lastly, Response Modulation is the way a person reacts after the situation has already occurred by trying to sway them. Obviously, Selection of a Situation to Change of Cognition are associated with Antecedent-Focused Strategies while only Response Modulation is a Response Focused Strategy.


There are many strategies one can use to regulate their emotions; two of them are

  1. Reappraisal and
  2. Emotional Suppression (or Expressive Suppression or just Suppression).[6]

Reappraisal is when a person changes the way they think about a specific emotion in order to lessen its impact. Reappraisal of course comes much earlier in the Emotional Regulation process. While Suppression is a means to restrain any external signs of the emotion and occurs after the emotion has happened. These two methods of concealing emotions have different consequences; the Affective Consequence, Cognitive Consequence and Social Consequence.

In Reappraisal no negative Affective effects are present, but there are decreased expressive behavior but no “observable” physiological consequences. Affective Consequences on Suppression are a different matter. Increased physiological activation (i.e. during a study, the suppressed individuals has more blood vessel constriction than the control group.) and also decreased expressive behavior (similar to Reappraisal).

It should also be mentioned that people using Reappraisal show no signs of disgust while the Suppressed group exhibited disgust(). The Cognitive Consequences of Reappraisal was that it had no effects on memory at all, the memories of people that use Reappraisal stayed the same. While the effects of people utilizing suppression were mostly negative.

The Social Consequences of each approach are markedly different. The social consequences of the reappraisal approach were much more positive than those of Suppression approach. In Reappraisal there was a decrease in negative expressive behavior and it didn’t affect positive expressive behavior negatively and at times it even increased it[6] People who have utilized Suppression have been shown to exhibit lack of concern or interest in conversations and lack of responsiveness.[7] Suppressors also tended to exhibit signs linked to lying and Interpersonal Deception in that there is a containment of true feelings .While in suppression, the positive and negative expressive behavior both decreased. Another disadvantage or consequence of Suppression is it takes a lot of energy that could be used to do other things, which might cause distraction on to other things people could be concentrating on.[7]

This research clearly points to Reappraisal as the better approach to healthy ER. There are few or no negative effects of Reappraisal on Cognition, Affect and Social matters. Reappraisal involves nipping the emotion in the bud through understanding. Suppression involves hiding emotions after they’ve occurred and it’s effects are mostly negative not only inwardly (i.e. memory, cognition ,etc) but outwardly as well (i.e. social interaction with others). Reappraisal works on all fronts, which makes it the best form of Self-Regulation.[7]


As people age, their affect-the way they react to emotions –also changes, either positively or negatively. Studies show that positive affect increases as a person grows from adolescence to the mid 70s. Negative affect, on the other hand, decreases until the mid 70s. Studies also show that emotions differ in adulthood particularly affect (positive or negative). Although some studies found that affect decreases with age, this one[8] concluded that adults-in their middle age-experience more positive affect and less negative affect than younger adults. Positive affect was also higher for men than women while the negative affect was higher for women than it was for men and also for single people.[8] A reason that older people –middle adulthood-might have less negative affect is because they have overcome, “the trials and vicissitudes of youth, they may increasingly experience a more pleasant balance of affect, at least up until their mid-70s”.[8] Positive affect might rise during middle age but towards the later years of life-the 70s- it begins to decline while negative affect also does the same.[8] This might be due to failing health, reaching the end of their lives and the death of friends and relatives.[8]

Affective Chronometry

In addition to baseline levels of positive and negative affect, studies have found individual differences in the time-course of emotional responses to stimuli. The temporal dynamics of emotional regulation, also known as affective chronometry, includes two key variables in the emotional response process: rise time to peak emotional response, and recovery time to baseline levels of emotion.[9] Studies of affective chronometry typically separate positive and negative affect into distinct categories, as previous research has shown (despite some correlation) the ability of humans to experience changes in these categories independently of one another.[10] Affective chronometry research has been conducted on clinical populations with anxiety, mood, and personality disorders, but is also utilized as a measurement to test the effectiveness of different therapeutic techniques (including mindfulness training) on emotional dysregulation.[11]


Exercise is a widespread method for emotional regulation that works for almost everyone.[12] Exercise has been shown to have definite cognitive effects by altering brain chemistry. Animal studies have shown that norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter involved in emotion, is altered in the frontal cortex and hippocampus after exercising. The change in norepinephrine levels in the brain due to exercise seems to have an effect on mood similar to those of antidepressants. Exercise has also been shown to help individuals deal with stress by “acting on the neurohormones that govern the stress response”.[13] This effect on the neurohormones increases one’s threshold for stress, making the stresses of life seem more manageable.

The changes in brain chemistry due to exercise have important implications for the management of mental health disorders. In some instances, exercise has been shown to be more effective in the treatment of depression than medication.[13] One study that analyzed longitudinal gains over a two-month period after exercising period produced results with even more positive implications for the use of exercise in emotional regulation. After this two-month period, individuals indicated they felt less emotional distress and experienced a decrease in perceived stress. An increase in the ability to control behavior was also shown, with behaviors ranging from cigarette smoking to making appointments on time, all showing improvement.[14]

Developmental psychology

The emergence of emotional regulation is a slow gradual process over the course of development. At first, the child relies heavily on mediation from external parties, such as the primary caregiver, to co-regulate his or her emotions, such as when an upset infant requires the attentive mother to calm them down. By 6 months of age,[1] researchers believe infants show the first signs of emotional self-regulation, likely as a result of "downloading", or internalizing, their caregivers' emotional regulation "programs".[15] At this age, they can self-soothe and also self-distract to avoid what has upset them. Between ages 1–2, children distract themselves from distressing stimuli by averting attention more and more. Over the years, children increasingly manage negative emotions by talking with others and negotiating ways to resolve situations, showing sophistication in emotion regulation.[citation needed]

It has been suggested by some that neurological changes confer such maturity in regulation over the course of development, particularly maturation of the frontal lobes, thought to be essential for managing attention and inhibiting thoughts and behaviors.[1]

Decision making

Identification of our emotional self-regulating process can facilitate in the decision making process.[16] Current literature on emotion regulation identifies that humans characteristically make efforts in controlling emotion experiences.[17] There is then a possibility that our present state emotions can be altered by emotional regulation strategies resulting in the possibility that different regulation strategies could have different decision implications.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Siegler, Robert (2006). How Children Develop, Exploring Child Develop Student Media Tool Kit & Scientific American Reader to Accompany How Children Develop, New York: Worth Publishers.
  2. Miech, R., Essex, M. J., & Goldsmith, H. H. (2001). Socioeconomic status and the adjustment to school: The role of self-regulation during early childhood. Sociology of Education, 74(2), 102 - 120.
  3. Davidson, R. J. . Affective Style and Affective Disorders: Perspectives from Affective Neuroscience, Cognition and Emotion, 12, (1998), pp. 307-330.
  4. Perry, B. Self-Regulation - The Second Core Strength. Early Childhood Today, (2001).
  5. Bandura, A., Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Gerbino, M., Pastorelli, C.Role of Affective Self-Regulatory Efficacy in Diverse Spheres of Psychosocial Functioning. Child Development Vol. 74, No. 3 (May–June., 2003), pp. 769-782
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Gross, James (December 2001). Emotional Regulation in Adulthood: Timing is Everything. Current Directions in Psychological Science 10 (6): 214–219.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Richards, Jane (August 2004). The Cognitive Consequences of Concealing Feelings. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13 (4): 131–134.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Labouvie-Vief, Gisela (December 2003). Dynamic Integration:Affect, Cognition and the Self in Adulthood. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12 (6): 201–206.
  9. Davidson, R. J. . Affective Style and Affective Disorders: Perspectives from Affective Neuroscience, Cognition and Emotion, 12, (1998), pp. 307-330.
  10. Ruef A. M.; Levenson R. W. . Continuous Measurement of Emotion, pp. 287-297.
  11. Geschwind N. . Mindfulness Training Increases Momentary Positive Emotions and Reward Experience in Adults Vulnerable to Depression:A Randomized Controlled Trial, Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, (2011), pp. 618-628.
  12. Walsh, Roger Exercise Benefits Body, Brain, and Mind. URL accessed on 29 April 2011.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Marano, Hara Estroff Move to Boost Mood. URL accessed on 24 April 2011.
  14. Oaten, Megan, Cheng, Ken (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology 11 (4): 717–733.
  15. Schore, A., (2003). Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York: Norton.
  16. Miclea, M and Miu, A. 2010. Emotion Regulation and Decision Making Under Risk and Uncertainty. American Psychological Association. 10(2)pp257-265.
  17. Gross, J, J. 2002. Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology. 39, 281–291.

Further reading

Further reading


  • Kring, A.M * Sloan, D. (2009). Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology. UK:Routledge. ISBN 9781606234501

External sites

Yale based site

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