How to Regulate Your Stir-Crazy Emotions
Findings and recommendations from a survey of people on lockdown
Co-authored with Diana Divecha
During the week of March 23, days after U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged Americans to stay at home to slow the spread of Covid-19, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) conducted a survey of more than 5,000 people worldwide.
We asked participants to describe how they were feeling, in their own words. More than 95% of the words reflected unpleasant feelings; the top five were anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad. Only about 6% of the sample mentioned positive feelings like hopeful and grateful. The causes people gave for their suffering were related to finances, lack of access to groceries and cleaning supplies, balancing work and family life, feeling cooped up, or fear that they or someone they love would contract the coronavirus.
When we asked people about the strategies they used to manage their feelings, a few well-known ones came up, like mindfulness and meditation. But most of the strategies were worrisome: screaming and losing their temper, drinking and/or eating more than usual, obsessively cleaning, overthinking, consuming too much media, avoidance, and oversleeping.
An occasional slip is understandable, but it doesn’t take a scientist to know these strategies will be harmful in the long run.
The challenges we’re all facing and feeling are real.
Isolation goes against the very grain of being human. We know from studies on newborns to adults that our nervous system is designed to engage with others. When our social connections are broken, we can become dysregulated and even experience physical pain. In our bodies, isolation can feel like a kind of death sentence, and the thought of it can set off our alarm bells.
Regulating your emotions does not mean denying your reality.
For people sequestered with loved ones, minor irritations can quickly snowball, because we’re not used to spending so much time together. Structural stress, like job loss, can spill over into family stress.
When our emotion-regulation strategies are constructive, however, we can better manage our inner experience of the current reality, and we’re more likely to emerge from the crisis with our well-being intact. Research shows that people with more developed emotion-regulation skills tend to have greater well-being and more harmonious relationships. But how many of us have had a formal education in emotion regulation? Most people can’t even define it.
Emotion regulation is the process of monitoring feelings and using techniques to minimize the unpleasant ones (down-regulation), increase pleasant ones (up-regulation), or maintain the ones you want in order to accomplish a personal or professional goal. Regulating your emotions does not mean denying your reality. When regulating anxiety, it’s often a kind of conversation between the brain’s warning system (limbic regions) that is trying to protect you and the thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) that takes time to think things through wisely.
The regulation process begins with a question: What is my emotion goal? Do I want to feel less anxious or bored? More hopeful or patient? Or do I want to remain calm and optimistic? Emotion regulation can happen at different times: We can prevent unwanted emotions, deactivate overwhelming ones, and strategize by changing our thinking or behavior in order to respond rather than react.
Next, we choose a strategy.
To prevent anxiety about the pandemic, you might limit your exposure to other anxious people or limit your exposure to the media to half an hour in the morning and at night. Having a schedule, especially for children, can relax the mind and allow feelings of control and predictability. It helps to pinpoint the obstacles that are getting in the way of our success. Brainstorming, alone or with others, can help you identify compromises or improvements you might need to make for better work-life balance.
Even when circumstances restrict us, cognitive strategies can change our brain’s and body’s experience of the events.
We also need downtime and play — getting in touch with our spirituality, watching a funny movie, or pursuing a passion project — to provide much-needed relief and help us build our reserves for the next challenge.
When strong, unpleasant feelings arise, it’s important to deactivate and try to make a conscious choice not to act hastily in response to that discomfort. Pausing to breathe deeply helps to harness the vagus nerve of the calming, parasympathetic system, reducing the physiology of the stress response. You can also allow yourself a time-out to regroup and rebalance. Maybe you could phone a friend, sit in the sunshine, or take a walk. It’s not always possible to cool down right away.
At present, many of us are unable to change the reality of their situation. This includes health care workers, teachers, parents, and people in precarious financial straits. But even when circumstances restrict us, cognitive strategies can change our brain’s and body’s experience of the events.
Cognitive strategies push us to ask ourselves: “Is there another way to think about this situation?” Try these.
Reframe your outlook
For example, reminding ourselves that our elders survived catastrophes like war and the Great Depression can motivate us to rise to the challenge. Or, when we feel the urge to violate social distance guidelines, we can call on our better selves to be accountable for our role in containing or spreading the disease. We can recast the unexpected time with loved ones as an opportunity to get to know each other better. And we can remind ourselves that this is not forever — normal life will resume.
You can be your own best coach by monitoring the self-talk that runs through your mind — is it helpful or unhelpful? If that’s too hard, think about how you would advise a loved one and try taking the same advice. A mother shared that her son was missing his friends, and instead of telling him what to do or think, she asked him what he would say to his best friend who felt that way. Immediately, the boy replied, “We can FaceTime each other and play games, and I’d tell him this won’t be forever.” When the mother suggested that he try following his own advice, the boy smiled and said, “You’re a genius!”
It’s okay to distance yourself psychologically from a difficult moment with humor, distraction, or even avoidance. You don’t always have to deal with challenges head-on. Getting a tiny bit of psychological space can allow us just enough room to problem-solve and come up with solutions.
The parry is a martial arts move in which you guide an oncoming blow past you. In other words, you can observe an incoming stressor, but then you get to decide whether or not to engage with it.
Strategies for regulating emotions are limitless, and those that work for you might not work for others. For example, introverts are more comfortable being alone, whereas extroverts might want more interaction. And what works for you today might not work tomorrow.
Of course, emotion regulation depends on getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and exercise, all of which also support a healthy immune system. When we’re depleted, our defenses go down and our mental capacity and moods are negatively affected. And sometimes we need structural assistance: Women and children trapped at home with abusers need real help, health care professionals need protective gear and childcare, and many people need financial help.
No matter how dire the circumstances, we can do our best to manage the strong feelings that accompany whatever comes our way. But we also have to give ourselves permission to fail, because we will. When that happens, we may need the courage to apologize and forgive ourselves as we forgive others. We can then take a deep breath or two, envision our best selves, and begin again.