What is Emotional Regulation

emotional regulation

Emotional regulation, also known as emotional self-regulation, refers to an individual’s ability to manage, respond to, and modify their own emotional experiences. This process helps in maintaining a balanced and healthy emotional state, promoting positive interpersonal interactions, reducing the impact of negative emotions on the individual’s mental health, and maximizing positive emotional experiences.

Developing effective emotion regulation skills is crucial as it allows individuals to control and manage their emotional states. This can lead to better mental health outcomes, improved self-regulation skills, and greater resilience in coping with stress and adversity.

However, it is important to note that not all individuals have the same capacity for emotional regulation. People better able to regulate emotions seem to have higher levels of emotional intelligence.

Some may struggle with emotional dysregulation, which is characterized by an inability to manage one’s emotions effectively. This can result in intense, unpredictable, or inappropriate responses. Emotional dysregulation is often associated with mental health disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Examples of Emotional Regulation Strategies

Emotional regulation can involve various techniques and strategies that individuals employ to manage their emotions. Here are some common examples:

  1. Cognitive reappraisal: The ability to reinterpret a situation or event to reduce its emotional impact (e.g., viewing a distressing situation as an opportunity for growth).
  2. Distraction: Shifting one’s focus away from a negative emotional experience to more neutral or positive stimuli.
  3. Problem-solving: Identifying, analyzing, and resolving the underlying cause of a negative emotion.
  4. Mindfulness: Developing a non-judgmental and accepting awareness of the present moment, including observing one’s emotions without being consumed by them.
  5. Expressive suppression: Controlling the outward expression of an emotion, often in contexts where emotional displays might be deemed inappropriate or unhelpful.

The Role of Psychophysiology

Psychologists James Gross and Kevin Ochsner defined as emotional self-regulation as “the initiation of new, or the alteration of ongoing, emotional reactions through the action of regulatory processes.”  These processes can be conscious and deliberate, or without conscious awareness, based more on physiological aspects of emotions.

The introduction of functional magnetic resonance imaging has enabled the study of emotion regulation on a biological level. Specifically, research over the last decade clearly suggests that there is a neurological basis.

The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures that play a vital role in emotional processing and regulation. The amygdala, a component of the limbic system, is known for its involvement in emotion generation, particularly in response to fear and anxiety.

The hippocampus, another significant structure within the limbic system, works with the amygdala to create significant emotional memories and facilitate their retrieval. This interconnectedness between the amygdala and hippocampus plays a key role in the regulation of emotional experiences.

The prefrontal cortex is crucial for emotional regulation due to its involvement in executive functions such as planning, impulse control, and decision making. These cognitive processes enable individuals to assess and modulate their emotional responses to various situations.

Functional neuroimaging studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is crucial in the regulation of negative emotions, such as fear and anger, by modulating the activity of the amygdala and other limbic structures.

Heart rate, as a psychophysiological indicator, is closely linked to emotional regulation. As emotions arise, they trigger changes in heart rate variability, which reflects the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Increased heart rate variability signifies a more adaptable and resilient emotional regulation system, while reduced heart rate variability may be indicative of difficulties in emotional regulation.

Psychophysiological studies have demonstrated that voluntary regulation of positive and negative emotions influences heart rate. Viewing arousing pleasant or unpleasant images, for example, results in a greater parasympathetic nervous system-mediated reduction in heart rate than neutral picture viewing.

Approaches to Emotion Regulation

Various theoretical models and approaches have been developed to better understand and categorize self-regulation processes. Among them, the process model of emotion regulation is particularly notable, as it provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how emotions are regulated.

The modal model of emotion serves as the foundation for the process model of emotion regulation. The modal model of emotion suggests that the process of emotion generation occurs in a specific order over time. The sequence happens like this:

  • Situation: The sequence starts with an emotionally relevant situation (real or imagined).
  • Attention: attention is focused on the emotional situation.
  • Appraisal: the emotional situation is assessed and interpreted.
  • Response: an emotional response is produced, resulting in loosely coordinated changes in experiential, behavioral, and physiological response systems.

This model incorporates a feedback loop from Response to Situation due to the fact that an response emotion can cause alterations in a given circumstance. This feedback loop indicates that the process of emotion generation is recursive, ongoing, and dynamic.

The process model proposes five distinct categories of emotion regulation, each of which corresponds to the regulation of a specific point in the process of emotion generation.  They occur in the order listed:

  • situation selection
  • situation modification
  • attentional deployment
  • cognitive change
  • response modulation

These strategies vary in their focus and the stage of the emotional process they target. Some of the most common emotion regulation techniques covered in these strategies include reappraisal, distraction, self-distancing, and suppression.

Reappraisal, also known as cognitive reappraisal, is a cognitive change strategy that involves reframing an emotional situation to alter its emotional impact. This technique is considered to be an antecedent-focused strategy, as it occurs before the emotional response is fully generated. Reappraisal skills have been linked to better emotional and psychological outcomes cwhen dealing with stressful situations ompared to other strategies like suppression.

Distraction, a technique commonly used in attentional deployment, involves diverting one’s attention away from an emotional stimulus. This method can be an effective way to manage emotions, especially in the short term, by reducing the intensity and duration of the response.

Self-distancing is another attentional deployment strategy that involves taking a more detached perspective on one’s emotions and experiences. By adopting an observer’s viewpoint, individuals can reduce the intensity of their emotional reactions and gain a better understanding of their emotional experiences.

Situation selection is the process of choosing environments, activities, or interactions that are likely to elicit desired emotional experiences while avoiding those that might trigger unwanted emotions. By selectively approaching or avoiding specific situations, individuals can exert control over their emotional experiences more effectively.

Emotion suppression and expressive suppression are response-focused strategies that involve inhibiting the expression of emotions. While these approaches may provide temporary relief or allow individuals to conform to social norms, they can also lead to detrimental outcomes, including increased psychological distress and impaired social functioning.

Emotional Dysregulation in Mental Health

Negative feelings such as fear, anxiety, stress, and distress can arise due to various factors in life. Being able to regulate our emotions enables individuals to handle these feelings more efficiently, preventing them from becoming overwhelming or potentially harmful. By practicing emotional regulation skills, individuals can mitigate the impact of these emotions on their mental health and improve their psychological resilience.

Such regulation is particularly important in the context of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Research has shown that individuals with these conditions may have difficulties in regulating their emotions, leading to heightened emotional reactivity and exacerbation of symptoms. By fostering emotional regulation skills, individuals with depression and anxiety may better manage their symptoms and reduce the severity of their disorders.

Similarly, self-regulation plays a crucial role in managing personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). Individuals with BPD often experience intense emotional responses, emotion dysregulation, difficulty navigating interpersonal relationships. Emotion regulation strategies can help those with borderline personality disorder to better manage their feelings, improve their relationships, and achieve a more balanced emotional state.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is another condition where emotional regulation is helpful. People with ASD often struggle with expressing and understanding emotions, which can lead to difficulties in social interactions and increased risk for developing co-occurring mental health issues. Implementing emotion regulation techniques can support individuals with ASD to navigate their emotions better and reduce the likelihood of secondary disorders such as anxiety and depression.

In the case of social anxiety, emotional regulation can be instrumental in helping individuals manage their fear and stress in social situations. By controlling their emotional responses, individuals with social anxiety can gain increased confidence in engaging with others and minimize the impact of social anxiety on their overall mental health.

Development in Different Age Groups

During infancy, intrinsic emotion regulation attempts are thought to be mostly governed by innate physiological response systems. These systems typically manifest as a preference for and avoidance of pleasurable or unpleasant stimuli.

At three months, newborns can engage in self-soothing behaviours such as sucking and respond to and instinctively convey sensations of distress. For example, infants have been observed attempting to hide their anger or sadness by furrowing their brow or pursing their lips.

Toddlers begin to learn new techniques to reduce unpleasant arousal before the end of the first year. These methods can involve rocking, gnawing on objects, or avoiding things that annoy them.

In children, emotional regulation strategies develop gradually as they grow older. Younger children may rely on external support from parents and caregivers, while older children start using their own strategies for emotional control as they gain more cognitive skills and social experiences. Children need to learn adaptive emotional regulation strategies to cope with strong emotions, minimize negative effects of emotions, and foster positive mental health.

During adolescence, individuals undergo significant physical, cognitive, and emotional changes. Adolescents may experience heightened emotional intensity due to hormonal changes and become more aware of their social and emotional experiences. To cope with these challenges, they may adopt various emotional regulation strategies.

Some strategies may be adaptive, such as problem-solving, self-soothing, and seeking social support, while others may be maladaptive, such as avoidance, denial, or aggression. The effectiveness of these strategies determines how well adolescents can maintain emotional well-being and prevent emotional problems.

In adults, emotional regulation becomes more refined as individuals acquire more knowledge, self-awareness and experiences. Adults often use a combination of cognitive and behavioural strategies to effectively manage emotions in various situations.

Older adults, on the other hand, have been found to be more successful at maintaining healthy levels of hedonic well-being and to place a greater emphasis on positive rather than negative information.

Therapeutic Interventions for Emotional Regulation

One of the most popular therapies for emotional regulation is dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Developed by Marsha Linehan, this therapy emphasizes mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance.

In DBT, the therapist works closely with the client to identify negative thought patterns in strong emotions and replace them with healthier coping strategies. Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of DBT in treating mood disorders and reducing symptoms related to emotion dysregulation.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another widely used intervention for emotional regulation. CBT helps individuals recognize, challenge, and restructure maladaptive thought patterns that contribute to emotional instability. Therapists assist clients in developing coping skills, increasing emotional awareness, and implementing adaptive emotion regulation strategies.

In addition to these more specific therapies, general therapeutic techniques can bolster emotional regulation. For example, therapists may encourage clients to engage in regular physical activity, practice relaxation techniques, or develop a strong social support network. These practices have been shown to contribute to emotional stability and overall well-being.

It is essential for therapists to tailor interventions to the unique needs and emotional challenges of each client. By integrating various therapeutic approaches and techniques, therapists can provide comprehensive support for individuals seeking to improve their emotional regulation skills.


Mindfulness is a helpful tool in effective emotional regulation. This mental state allows individuals to maintain a non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

By being present and attentive to one’s own experiences, people practicing mindfulness can better understand and manage their emotions. Several mindfulness practices, such as meditation, deep breathing, and body scanning, have been proven to support emotional well-being and stability.

Research has shown that mindfulness can play a key role in improving self-regulation by enhancing executive control. With increased executive control, individuals can more effectively direct their attention, inhibit impulsive reactions, and make better decisions in response to challenging emotions.

Emotional Regulation and Social Media

Studies have found that individuals with a high degree of emotion dysregulation frequently use the internet to alter their mood, which can lead to internet addiction. Social media activities and emotion regulation strategies also have been found to influence people’s mental health during stressful events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Users who employ adaptive emotion regulation strategies may be more resilient in coping with stress and maintaining their mental well-being despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Emotion regulation has been found to be a mediator in the relationship between adult attachment style and social networking sites addiction. Individuals with insecure attachment styles may have difficulty regulating their emotions, making them more susceptible to developing an addiction to social networking sites as they seek validation and connection through these platforms.

Another essential aspect to consider is the impact of passive social media use on psychological well-being. Research has shown that passive social media use can lead to negative outcomes, such as increased social comparison and decreased emotional regulation capacity. Individuals who frequently engage in passive social media use may find it more difficult to manage their emotions and maintain positive mental health.

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