Man laying down for a progressive muscle relaxation technique

Emotion regulation is a skill that can always be learned and updated - we are never too old to learn a new way to support ourselves.

Before we can regulate/manage an emotion, we need to know how to identify it and understand its purpose or message. Just like any challenge we encounter in life, we first need to have at least a basic understanding of what exactly it is that is causing us a problem before we can begin to change it or manage it better. 

A lot of men struggle with their emotions. If you answer yes to any of the questions below, you may be struggling to understand, manage, and use your emotions effectively.

  • Do you react immediately to something that has happened before thinking?
  • Do you start to cry or feel intense emotions seemingly out of nowhere?
  • Do you struggle with understanding others when they are talking about their emotions/feelings?
  • Do you feel guilty or bad about yourself for how you respond in certain situations?

WHAT IS EMOTIONAL REGULATION?

Emotional regulation is a technical term for describing how we manage our emotional experiences. The term can fall under the umbrella concept of “Emotional Intelligence”, which means:

  • Knowing what emotion is that we are feeling, 
  • Knowing what the emotion means about us and the situation we are in,
  • Knowing how to control our response to the emotion so that the emotion doesn’t control us, 
  • Knowing how to communicate/express this feeling to others.

Everyone has at least a few strategies they use to regulate their emotions – even if they don’t consciously know they do. For instance, when some people feel frustrated at the end of a long work day, they might scroll on their phones/devices for some time – this helps them avoid their emotions which, in the short-term, can decrease the intensity of the feelings. 

Thankfully, there are much more helpful long-term strategies that we can learn to intentionally and consistently manage our emotions that leave us feeling more in control of our emotional experiences.

There are two main types of emotional regulation strategies – those that aim to “down-regulate” or decrease the intensity or frequency of a particular emotion and others that aim to “up-regulate” or increase the intensity or frequency of a particular emotion. 

Both strategies (down-regulation and up-regulation) are important to practice because if we only rely on up-regulating our positive emotions (i.e., happy/excited) we tend to neglect the other important, yet less comfortable emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, fear) which then build up over time and increase our level of distress and likelihood of feeling anxiety and depression. 

For this article, we will focus on down-regulating skills and strategies as these are most often desired for those who struggle with their emotions.

WHY REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS?

  • To become more comfortable with experiencing difficult emotions (i.e., anger, anxiety, sadness)
  • To feel more in control of your emotions
  • To be able to ask for help and increase intimacy in relationships
  • To gain a better understanding about the situations in which difficult emotions arise
  • To feel more confident in making well-balanced decisions
  • To improve your ability to relax and rest
  • To improve relationships with others
  • To build a sense of flexibility in your responses, empathy, and compassion

ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE YOUR EMOTIONAL REGULATION

1. NOTICE

The first step with any emotional regulation strategy is to notice when we need to use that strategy. This sounds easier than it is. Emotions can come on quickly and take over us without any logical thought (the neurological systems of emotions have deep roots and can prompt us to act with little to no thought). 

Anger, sadness, shame, and/or fear can occur quickly without us knowing, which may lead us to feel overwhelmed – we feel like we have lost control of our bodies and minds. 

To begin the process of learning how to notice and take control of our emotions, we need to get into the habit of actually noticing when we’re experiencing strong emotions.

  • Step 1: To start, pick at least one time a day you will check-in on your emotions. Make it the same time/situation every day (i.e., after you arrive home from work). During this time ask yourself if you are feeling emotion anywhere in your body. Check your thoughts. What is your attention focused on? If emotion is present within you to any degree, take note of how you experience it – thoughts (e.g., I’m pissed off), sensations (e.g., my jaw hurts), breathing rate (e.g., my breathing is pretty shallow and rapid), etc.
  • Step 2: To develop the habit of noticing and regulating your emotions, set a timer on your phone or watch to go off at regular intervals (e.g., every couple of hours). When the timer goes off, repeat the process in Step 1 to increase your conscious awareness of feeling.

2. FEELING WHEEL

Once we have noticed ourselves feeling something, it helps to put a specific label to it. This helps us organize our emotions and be able to know its signs so we can be better equipped to prevent it or regulate it as quickly as possible. Dr. Dan Siegel came up with the expression: “Name it to Tame it”, which reflects this strategy perfectly. 

We often fear what we don’t understand. Once we can name something, we can begin to think about it more concretely, understand it, plan around it, and learn to deal with it. 

A Feeling Wheel is a great tool for the purpose of naming our emotions. It is basically a pie chart with several different emotion words on it. After you notice you are feeling something, take the feeling wheel and label all the emotions that jump off the page to you as you read through them – you’ll know in your gut which ones feel right. No need to memorize these feelings, just make sure you have this feeling wheel somewhere accessible so you can refer to it whenever you need it.

Access a Free Feeling Wheel here: https://feelingswheel.com/

3. CONTROL YOUR BREATHING

When we are stressed, we often hold our breath or breathe shallowly in our upper chest, rather than deep in our lungs. For this reason, controlling our breathing is one of the most accessible ways of regulating your emotions. If you are able to check your breathing regularly throughout the day, you will be able to develop awareness as to how you are doing emotionally and to understand your stress level immediately. 

Experiment: One strategy is box breathing, which allows you to calm your body and lowers your heart rate. Here’s how to do it:

  • Breathe deeply into your stomach and chest for four seconds
  • Hold the breath for four seconds
  • Breathe out for four seconds
  • Repeat

Learn more about calming exercises with HeadsUpGuys’ free Mindfulness for Men Course.

4. PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR)

This is a great, and well-researched, strategy for down-regulating tough emotions, like anger and fear. It also can be great to help you get to sleep at night. 

Here’s a quick example of how to do it: 

  • Starting with the muscles in your feet working your way up, tense each muscle group in your body, one at a time, squeezing them hard for 5 seconds. Next, release the tension on an exhale, paying attention to the difference in sensations between the tension and release. After 15 seconds, switch to the next muscle group and start over with tension, until you get to your shoulders. 

Access free guided audio recordings as part of HeadsUpGuys’ free Mindfulness for Men Course.

5. COLD WATER

There is a lot of news and media information about the benefits of cold-water therapy. This particular strategy has some good research behind it.[1]

Fill up a sink with cold water (around 10°C/50°F) and immerse your face in the cold water. Hold it there for at least 30 seconds. The cold water on your face activates different receptors in your nervous system that signal a “dive response” which slows down your heart rate. This is a great way to decrease your feelings of anxiety, stress or anger. 

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO REGULATE OUR EMOTIONS SOMETIMES?

We learn how to regulate our emotions through significant relationships while growing up – parents, other caregivers, siblings, friends, teachers, mentors, etc. Therefore, if we weren’t shown or taught how to soothe and manage our emotions effectively by others, we grow up not really knowing how to regulate our emotional experiences. Learning these skills as an adult requires us to consciously decide to develop them. It’s kind of like learning a language – it’s much easier as a child (it just seems to happen), whereas it’s much more difficult as an adult, where we have to be intentional about it and consciously practice it over and over. 

Emotion regulation is a skill that can always be learned and updated – we are never too old to learn a new way to support ourselves. So why wait? Plan to try one of the strategies above at least once a week and see how it works for you.

STILL STRUGGLING TO REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS?

If you have tried the tips above on your own but are struggling, you are not the only one. It can be quite difficult to develop emotion regulation skills on your own. As such, it can be incredibly helpful to work with a professional. Check out our HeadsUpGuys’ Guide to Therapy for Men to start your journey of connecting with a mental health professional and working toward improving your emotion regulation skills.


About Cameron

I am a Registered Clinical Counsellor who specializes in working with adult men who struggle with self-acceptance, self-esteem, anger, relationship issues, depression, and anxiety. I have a particular focus on helping men that identify as introverted and/or highly sensitive. 

Cameron Grunbaum (He, Him, His), Certified Canadian Counsellor (CCC), Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC).

Iron Tree Counselling, Online Counselling Across Canada.


Next Steps

Our Mindfulness For Men Course includes simple daily practices, as well as step-by-step guided meditations that you can work on weekly towards becoming more emotionally resilient.

References

  1. Richer, R., Zenkner, J., Küderle, A., Rohleder, N., & Eskofier, B. M. (2022). Vagus activation by Cold Face Test reduces acute psychosocial stress responses. Scientific reports, 12(1), 19270. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-23222-9

 

Become the best boyfriend, husband, or partner you can be

New free course! Build relationship skills and learn about communication, sexual intimacy, romance, empathy, reciprocity, trust, setting healthy boundaries, and navigating disagreements.

Learn More