Emotion Regulation: 8 Do’s and Don’ts for Managing Difficult Emotions
“Once [anger] begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing once passion has been admitted to the mind . . . The enemy must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line: for when he has once entered the city and passed its gates, he will not allow his prisoners to set bounds to his victory.” – SENECA
In The Little Book of Stoicism, chapter 4 is all about negative emotions. As Jonas explains, the Stoics viewed anger, fear, guilt, and co. as the number one enemy in the pursuit of the good life.
If you think about your biggest regrets and most recent failures in life, you’ll probably find a negative emotion as the culprit. Perhaps you never pursued the career you had always dreamt of (fear, anxiety), shouted at your wife or kids (anger, jealousy), or drowned your sorrows in alcohol (sadness, despair).
What the Stoics knew thousands of years ago, modern science has confirmed over the last decades: under the influence of negative emotions, we often become our own worst enemies.
One group of researchers puts it well, “Negative affect may very well be the most potent disinhibitor of restrained behavior. When people feel worthless, depressed, or rejected, they are more likely to engage in a variety of self-defeating behaviors. Following negative affect, dieters overeat, former smokers smoke, and alcoholics fall into relapse. More generally, people become more likely to procrastinate, to be selfish or hostile, and even go so far as to denigrate outgroup members.” (Negative affect is essentially science lingo for negative emotions.)
The researchers explain some of the mechanisms through which negative emotions can have these detrimental effects: “Negative affect spreads poison tendrils into every aspect of self-regulation, amplifying desires, decreasing monitoring, depleting limited capacity, and encouraging misregulation strategies (e.g., mood repair and escape from aversive self-awareness), which can relieve negative affect in the short term but often lead to further negative affect upon failure to meet one's goals.”
To be clear, experiencing negative emotions is not in and of itself the problem. As books like The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your Good Self – Drives Success and Fulfillment explain, these emotions are valuable and do have their place. The problem occurs when these emotions overwhelm us and get out of control. Put differently, it is our inability to manage and regulate them that causes trouble.
It’s entirely possible to experience negative emotions and not fall into self-defeating behaviors – to experience anger without lashing out, to experience anxiety and move forward in spite of it, to experience disappointment and not give up.
In order to do that, however, we need the right mindset and tools. We need to know what to do and not to do when handling difficult emotions.
There’s an entire field of research that investigates how people deal with their emotions – how they try to increase, maintain, or decrease the intensity, duration, and trajectory of positive and negative emotions. This process is typically referred to as emotion regulation. (In this article, we focus on the regulation of negative emotions only.)
Among other things, this line of research has found that some emotion regulation strategies work better than others. It has also been found that people differ in the kind of strategies they use most frequently and that this has wide-ranging consequences for their well-being. As the Stoics would have predicted, people who use adaptive strategies and are good at regulating their emotions do far better than those who struggle with this process.
Another thing this research has found is that people can change the strategies they use to regulate their emotions. When they do this, they get better at regulating their emotions and their lives improve.
For me, learning about this research has been of massive help. It has helped me get better at managing my emotions, which in turn has helped me in overcoming procrastination, becoming more disciplined and productive, and it has surely helped me become a nicer, more caring, kind, and compassionate version of myself.
In the remainder of this article, I want to share with you some of the most important findings on emotion regulation. Without further ado, here are the 8 Do’s and Don’ts of managing difficult emotions.
1. DON’T Suppress
Suppression is probably the most common way of dealing with unwanted emotions. We try to hold things in, to push our feelings down or to push them away, to inhibit whatever’s going in inside of us, to not feel what we’re feeling.
It’s a fighting stance – we fight, subtly or not so subtly, with our experience. We don’t want to feel the way we’re feeling, so we’re fighting. When you look for synonyms for suppressing, you will find words like subduing, defeating, conquering, vanquishing, triumphing over, crushing, quashing, squashing, extinguishing, putting down, restricting, restraining, and so on.
The underlying assumption is that negative emotions are bad. They are our enemies. They feel bad. We want to get rid of them.
Suppression is an approach that doesn’t work very well. In fact, it tends to backfire and make things worse. As the saying goes, what you resist, persists.
When researchers tell people not to think about something or not to feel a certain way, what they find is ironic: The more we try to suppress a thought, emotion, or craving, the more we’re stuck with it and the more strongly we’re influenced by it.
A now classic study by Harvard scientist Daniel Wegner asked participants not to think about a white bear for five minutes and ring a bell each time the thought of a white bear crossed their minds. They could think about anything they wanted, except for a white bear. Following this initial suppression period, participants were allowed to think of anything they wanted, including white bears, and continue to ring a bell each time the thought of a white bear surfaced.
Wegner and his colleagues made two important findings. First, suppressing thoughts wasn’t possible. No matter how hard participants tried, the white bear continued to inhabit their thoughts. In fact, people who were told specifically not to think of white bears ringed the bell a lot more often than people who were allowed or even told to think of white bears.
The second finding was that people experience a rebound effect after trying to suppress a thought – they think even more about white bears once the suppression attempts are over. Compared to a control group who was encouraged to simply think about the bear, people who first tried to suppress thoughts of the white bear had many more occurrences of the white bear thought.
Perplexed by these findings, Wegner conducted several more studies. The results were always the same. The act of trying not to think about something triggered the paradoxical effect of thinking about it more often. Wegner dubbed this effect ironic rebound: the very thing you try not to think about rebounds back into your mind without fail. In conclusion to one of his studies, he said, "the paradoxical effect of thought suppression is that it produces a preoccupation with the suppressed thought."
Suppressing emotions doesn’t work, either. Research has shown that when we try to suppress our emotional experience, our heart rate tends to increase, the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) becomes more activated, breathing gets more rapid and shallow, and our overall physiological arousal goes up.
In the brain, activity in emotional centers like the amygdala goes up, while activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions like reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, creativity, and impulse control – goes down.
We end up being less objective, less clear-headed, less rational, and less in control. Instead, we’re more aroused and more strongly driven by emotional impulses. We feel the emotion more strongly and are more strongly influenced by it. As one study puts it, “suppressing emotions leads to a paradoxical increase in the unwanted emotional experience…”
In the long-run, people who heavily use suppression as an emotion regulation strategy do far worse than people who rely on more useful strategies. One study found that habitual suppressors “experience more negative emotions, including painful feelings of inauthenticity, than individuals who use suppression less frequently.” They also “score lowest in the domain of positive relations with others” and “also have lower levels of self-esteem, are less satisfied with life, and have more depressive symptoms.”
2. DON’T Vent
Venting – giving free expression to emotions – often gets a good reputation. “You just need to let it all out,” is what many of us seem to believe. It’s true: venting in various ways – lashing out at others, screaming, punching pillows, and so on – can feel satisfying. However, the “letting it out” doesn’t reduce the negative emotions, but rather tends to intensify them.
In a 2002 study, researchers divided 600 college students into three groups: distraction, venting, and a control group. Each person was asked to write an essay on abortion, which would then be evaluated by another participant – their so-called partner. There was no partner. Instead, the researchers provided negative feedback on all the essays. As a result, all the participants thought their partner had given them bad feedback.
Participants in the venting group – now noticeably upset by the negative feedback – were asked to hit a punching bad while thinking about their partner. There was even a photo of the partner (a random person) displayed on a computer screen. Participants in the distraction group were also asked to hit a punching bag, but they were told to visualize their fitness goals while looking at a photo of a physically fit person. The control group did nothing.
After hitting the punching bad, all participants reported how angry they felt. Next, in order to measure levels of aggression, participants were given the chance to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them.
The results? People in the control group were the calmest after the study. People in the venting group, on the other hand, were the angriest and most aggressive of the bunch. Far from calming people down, venting resulted in intensified aggression and anger.
Similarly, another study found that people who routinely visited and posted on rant websites were more likely to develop anger issues – they picked fights easily and received frequent warnings about heir behavior. And once again, venting felt satisfying with participants admitting that posting on ranting sites made them feel better.
Brad Bushman, author of the 2002 venting study and one of the leading researchers on anger and aggressive responding, believes that "venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire – it only feeds the flame.”
3. DON’T Ruminate
Another common way in which we deal with negative emotions is through rumination – the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one's negative emotional experience.
For example, we ask ourselves why we feel a certain way. “Why do we keep getting angry? What’s wrong with us? What is causing it? What could be done about it? Will I ever find a way out of this? What if I don’t?”
If you struggle with rumination in your own life, you know it’s not a healthy or useful coping mechanism. And the research agrees. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with anxiety and depression. A recent study showed that brooding too much on negative events is the biggest predictor of anxiety and depression and a strong determinant of the level of stress people experience.
Rumination is associated with a whole host of self-sabotaging behaviors such as alcohol abuse or eating disorders – we drink to take the edge off the consistent worrying and use food to distract ourselves. Rumination also increases our physiological and psychological stress responses to such a degree that it significantly raises blood pressure and can actually put us at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
The good news is that the following strategies help us deal not only with negative emotions but also with ruminative thinking.
4. DO Accept
Accepting negative emotions means allowing them to be as they are, without judging them and without trying to control or change them. It’s not passive resignation, but rather an active willingness to experience emotions and accompanying sensations and thoughts just as they are. It’s about experiencing one’s feelings fully and allowing them to run their natural course. It’s a stance of openness and curiosity.
Research shows that accepting emotions reduces their strength and stickiness. Acceptance also slows down our breathing, reduces our heart rate, and dampens our physiological arousal. In the brain, acceptance decreases activity in the amygdala and other emotional centers. At the same time, activity in the prefrontal cortex ramps up.
As a result, we feel more calm, cool, collected, and in control.
5. DO “Name It to Tame It”
A simple way to deal with a negative emotion or thought is to name it to tame it. The technique was coined by Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and professor who spent decades researching the effects of mindful practices on our brains and well-being. The technique involves noticing and labeling emotions as they are happening.
You might simply say to yourself, “Oh, there’s anger bubbling up inside of me,” or “Oh, this is anxiety,” or “Hmm, I’m feeling a bit disappointed right now.” You can also label your thoughts and bodily sensations, “Oh, there’s tension here,” or “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough,” or “Oh, there are a lot of thoughts about my upcoming exam. Interesting.”
The act of labeling an intense emotion (“naming it”) has the effect of reducing its strength and power over us (“taming it”). When we label an emotion, we create a natural distance to it. There’s the emotion and there’s us. There’s a healthy separation between the two. Labeling also helps us calm down and regain control over our experience, rather than get swept away by the strong emotion. We’re experiencing an emotion, but we aren’t caught up in it or controlled by it.
Research suggests that the simple act of labeling decreases activity in the brain’s emotional centers, including the amygdala. At the same time, activity in the prefrontal cortex ramps up. That’s the neurological explanation for how labeling helps us move from a state of hot impulsivity to a more calm, cool, and collected state.
6. DO Reframe
Reframing, or cognitive reappraisal, can be defined as “changing the way one thinks about a situation in order to change its emotional impact.” It involves reframing the meaning of a situation, emotion, feeling, or sensation. It’s about viewing things in a more positive light, about finding a more positive interpretation of whatever is disturbing us.
Thomas Edison provides a good example. When his research lab was burning down and decades of work were being destroyed, he supposedly told his son, “Go get your mother and all her friends, they’ll never see a fire like this again.” “Don’t worry,” Edison calmed his son. “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
Edison’s interpretation was positive and thus his emotional experience was also positive. If his interpretation had been that this was the worst thing that ever happened to anyone, that he was so unlucky, that his career was over, and that the world was conspiring against him – he would have experienced great emotional turmoil (anger, rage, self-pity, and so on).
For many of us, our initial interpretations aren’t as positive as Edison’s. If that’s the case, we can use reappraisal to change how we view the situation and thus change our emotional experience.
We can achieve this in several different ways. For example, we can consider what kind of advice we would give someone else in the same situation. Or we can think about the good things we might learn from this experience. Even though a situation may be painful in the moment, it could make our lives better in the long run.
We can also remind ourselves of the maybe story. Or we can tell ourselves that a bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul. We can remind ourselves that facing difficulty will make us stronger in the long-run, and more empathetic, understanding, and compassionate.
Research suggests that reappraisal is one of the most effective ways to regulate our emotions. As a 2019 study puts it, “Reappraisal has been shown to reduce negative emotional reactivity, reduce autonomic hyperactivity, modulate emotion regulatory brain networks, and enhance physical and mental well-being.”
Much like acceptance, reappraisal has been found to reduce the strength of negative emotions, slow down our breathing, deactivate the emotional centers of the brain, and bring online the prefrontal cortex.
In the long-run, people who habitually use reappraisal to deal with their emotions tend to do a lot better than people who don’t use the strategy as frequently. One study showed that “reappraisers both experience and express behaviorally more positive emotion and less negative emotion than those who reappraise less frequently. Socially, reappraisers are more likely to share their emotions, both positive and negative, with others, and they have closer relationships with friends; indeed, their friends like them more than they like those who do not use reappraisal frequently. In terms of well-being, reappraisers have fewer depressive symptoms, and greater self-esteem, life satisfaction, and every other type of well-being we measured.”
7. DO Treat Yourself With Compassion
Self-compassion is about being on your own side and treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend, spouse, or a kid. It’s a healthy way of relating to yourself that involves three core dimensions:
- Self-kindness – treating yourself with kindness versus harsh self-criticism or judgment
- Common humanity – acknowledging that suffering is a common human experience versus isolation and disconnection
- Mindfulness – accepting suffering while holding it in balanced awareness versus over-identification with suffering
With self-compassion, we forgive ourselves and treat ourselves with understanding, warmth, and kindness. We understand that we’re only human and that others struggle with the very same issues. We accept that life can be difficult at times. We tell ourselves, “It’s okay. This is a difficult experience. It happens to all of us from time to time.”
This calms us down and brings in positivity and warmth to counteract the difficult emotions.
8. DO Use R.A.I.N.
Sometimes it helps to have a specific tool that we can remember to use in the heat of the moment. RAIN is one such tool that incorporates many of the guidelines for dealing with negative emotions. It’s a mindfulness-based tool invented by meditation teacher Tara Brach.
She explains: “The acronym RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture – guides us in bringing mindfulness and compassion to difficult emotions. With practice, we can find our way home to open-hearted presence in the midst of whatever arises.”
The practice has four steps:
R—Recognize What’s Going On
Recognizing means consciously acknowledging, in any given moment, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are affecting you. This can be a done with a simple mental whisper, noting what you are most aware of.
A—Allow the Experience to be There, Just as It Is
Allowing means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you have recognized simply be there, without trying to fix or avoid anything.
You might recognize fear, and allow by mentally whispering “it’s ok” or “this belongs” or “yes.”
Allowing creates a pause that makes it possible to deepen attention.
I—Investigate with Interest and Care
To investigate, call on your natural curiosity—the desire to know truth—and direct a more focused attention to your present experience.
You might ask yourself: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need?
Whatever the inquiry, your investigation will be most transformational if you step away from conceptualizing and bring your primary attention to the felt-sense in the body.
N—Nurture with Self-Compassion
Self-compassion begins to naturally arise in the moments that you recognize you are suffering. It comes into fullness as you intentionally nurture your inner life with self-care.
To do this, try to sense what the wounded, frightened or hurting place inside you most needs, and then offer some gesture of active care that might address this need. Does it need a message of reassurance? Of forgiveness? Of companionship? Of love?
Experiment and see which intentional gesture of kindness most helps to comfort, soften or open your heart. It might be the mental whisper, I’m here with you. I’m sorry, and I love you. I love you, and I’m listening. It’s not your fault. Trust in your goodness.
In addition to a whispered message of care, many people find healing by gently placing a hand on the heart or cheek; or by envisioning being bathed in or embraced by warm, radiant light. If it feels difficult to offer yourself love, bring to mind a loving being—spiritual figure, family member, friend or pet—and imagine that being’s love and wisdom flowing into you.
In conclusion, the best way to deal with negative emotions is to welcome them, accept them, give them space, and let them be there. To just observe them without judging them, without labeling them as bad, and without trying to control or change them. To watch them rather than identify with them.
We can label what we’re experiencing in order to activate the more rational and objective parts of our brains and in order to create a healthy distance between us (the observer) and our emotions.
We can also look for a healthier and more useful interpretation of the situation. We can ask ourselves how we would view the same situation if it were happening to someone else.
During this process, we want to treat ourselves with warmth, understanding, compassion, and kindness. It’s okay that we experience difficulty; it’s part of being human.
Russ Harris sums it up well in his book The Confidence Gap – From Fear to Freedom: “…rather than trying to get rid of unpleasant feelings, we open up and accommodate them. We make room for them and allow them to come and go in their own good time. It doesn’t mean we like them, want them or approve of them; we just stop investing our time and effort in fighting them. And the more space we can give those difficult feelings, the smaller their impact and influence on our lives.”
On Emotion Regulation and Procrastination…
As I’ve explained in numerous articles (e.g., here and here), procrastination is mostly an emotion regulation issue. Specifically, procrastination has to do with the mismanagement of negative emotions, such as anxiety, guilt, shame, boredom, or frustration.
The activities we put off are those that induce negative emotions in us. We put off tasks that are aversive – that make us feel anxious, nervous, bored, etc..
For example, we may put off making a dentist appointment because we have fear of pain, injections, needles, drills, etc., or because we feel helpless in the dental chair, or because we don’t like the side effects of anesthesia, or because we tend to feel self-conscious or embarrassed about our teeth. Because thinking about making an appointment brings up all of these negative emotions, we avoid making an appointment by putting it off.
Or we may put off working on an important project because of fear of failure, which induces anxiety every time we even think about the project. In order to alleviate the anxiety, we avoid the project.
Our way of dealing with negative emotions is through avoidance. And while this works to alleviate the negative emotions in the short-term, it makes things so much worse in the long-term.
As one group of researchers puts it: “…procrastination can be understood as a self-regulatory failure that arises due to preceding aversive emotions, such as frustration, boredom, negative affect, anxiety, and worry resulting from the exposure to unpleasant and aversively perceived tasks. Thus, by procrastinating, the engagement in the voluntarily delay of unpleasant but mandatory tasks, individuals manage to avoid the experience of the aversive emotions in short-term, albeit fail to achieve their long-term goals.”
If we understand procrastination as an emotion regulation issue, it follows logically that learning to better deal with difficult emotions will result in less procrastination.
This assumption was tested in a study published in March of 2022. The researchers split university students into two groups: an intervention group that received online emotion regulation training over a period of 9 weeks, and a wait-list control group that received no such training. At the end of the 9 weeks, the intervention group reported better emotion regulation capacities and significantly less procrastination.
In the words of the researchers: “The results showed that the enhancement of general emotion regulation skills significantly reduced subsequent procrastination behavior…”
This was the first study to show that improving general emotion regulation skills directly translates into less procrastination. This means that using the Do’s and Don’ts we discussed in this article will help you overcome procrastination.
(For more tips on regulating emotions when it comes to procrastination, check out Module 7 in our premium course Procrastinator to Producer. You can learn more about it here.)