Emotions, emotional health, and emotional regulation
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 11/17/2023
Our emotions are influenced by the situations we’re in, our thoughts and beliefs, and our overall life circumstances. In turn, those emotions affect how we think and act. They can even cause physical changes in our bodies.
What are emotions?
Emotions are complex states that researchers have struggled to define and fully understand. To complicate matters, we often don’t experience just one emotion at a time, but instead have a mixture of feelings.
One longstanding theory is that all our emotions stem from a small set of basic, universal feelings: anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, and surprise. By that logic, frustration and rage could be considered a subset of anger, while melancholy and loneliness might be a subset of sadness.
However, newer research has suggested that there may be many more categories of emotion, all of which have “fuzzy” rather than firm boundaries.1
Mood vs. emotion
Moods and emotions overlap, but they aren’t exactly the same. A mood is a more general state of mind, while an emotion is a specific feeling that happens in response to a specific situation, person, or thing.
Elements of emotion
Emotions include three major parts:
- Subjective experience: The way people experience reality is subjective, meaning each person understands and feels things based on their own unique point of view.
- Physical response: Emotions often come with involuntary responses, such as stomach pain with anxiety, or a racing heart with fear.
- Behavioral response: People express their emotions through their actions. This is why it’s often possible to “read” other people’s feelings based on their behavior.
How emotions happen
Experts have noted that people tend to generate and regulate emotions in a four-step process:2
- A person experiences an emotionally relevant situation, either real or imagined.
- They focus their attention on specific details of that situation.
- They appraise the situation and decide what it means to them.
- They react (for example, raising their voice) or experience physical changes (such as blushing) in response to their appraisal.
What is emotional health?
Emotional health involves your ability to understand, express, and manage your feelings. It also refers to your ability to understand and respond to others’ emotions in healthy ways.
Mental vs. emotional health
Your emotional health, psychological health, and social health are building blocks of your overall mental health. Your mental health determines how you cope with stress, relate to others, and experience the joys and challenges of life.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage your own feelings. This enables you to deal with your emotions in healthy ways instead of suppressing them or expressing them in inappropriate or harmful ways. Your ability to regulate also plays a major role in your emotional well-being.
Emotional regulation strategies
Emotional regulation skills can be built and improved in a number of ways. Each stage of emotional response offers a chance to manage your emotions:
- Avoid unhealthy situations: If you know a situation is going to be distressing, it’s your right to choose whether you want to enter into it or not. For example, if you feel sure that going to dinner with your family will cause you anxiety, you can choose to stay home. (Note that avoidance can turn into an unhealthy coping mechanism, though, so it’s important to be aware of how often you use it.3)
- Change the scenario: If you decide to go forward with a potentially difficult experience, make the best of the factors that are within your control. In the case of that family dinner, you might decide to bring a friend for emotional support, or make it clear that there’s a set time you’ll need to leave.
- Shift your attention: When you’re in a stressful setting, you may feel a surge of emotions. One method you can use to deal with that surge is to focus your attention elsewhere. At family dinner, for instance, you might make a game of watching other diners and guessing how they met.
- Change your thinking: When you’re in an emotionally charged situation, changing how you think about it can change how you experience it. If your parent insults you, for example, try focusing on internal truths like “I’m not who my parent thinks I am” or “Parents shouldn’t speak to their kids this way.”
- Adjust how you express yourself: There are countless ways you can choose to express your emotions. If you’ve been upset with your parent for speaking to you rudely in the past, you might try setting new boundaries about what sorts of conversations you will or won’t tolerate.
Emotional dysregulation and mental illness
Dysregulation happens when a person has oversize or poorly controlled emotional reactions. This can be a symptom of mental health disorders, including:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): People with ADHD often feel emotions intensely. They may also struggle to learn and use more helpful behaviors because ADHD can make it difficult to plan, focus, and achieve goals.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): People on the autism spectrum may have a hard time with emotional dysregulation in situations that disrupt their routine or overload their senses.
- Personality disorders: Certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), involve greater emotional reactivity and sensitivity.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): People can develop PTSD after being involved in a traumatic event. Memories of trauma or other triggers can cause people with PTSD to have intense emotions that they may find it challenging to express in healthy ways.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD involves obsessions, unwanted thoughts, and compulsive actions. If someone has a compulsion they can’t act on, it may become hard to regulate their emotions.
Emotional dysregulation treatment
There are several therapeutic approaches that may help with emotional dysregulation:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify and change negative thoughts and control the intensity of your feelings.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help you understand, experience, and manage your emotions without acting on them rashly.
- Radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT) can help you express your emotions and improve your communication and social skills.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) involves recognizing your current feelings and learning to express them in positive ways.
If you struggle with emotional dysregulation, medication may help. Antidepressants or mood stabilizers can help ease depression, anxiety, or mood swings. This may provide a baseline that enables you to learn how to regulate your emotions more effectively.
Emotional health skills
Here are some actions you can take on your own to improve your emotional health:
- Self-regulation: Being aware of and managing your emotions and actions
- Self-care: Getting enough sleep, socializing, eating nutritious food, and exercising
- Stress management: Practicing relaxation techniques to lower your stress level
- Mindfulness: Staying grounded in the present moment to reduce stress, anxiety, and reactivity
- Meditation: Practicing deep breathing exercises and learning how to stay present without passing judgment
- Journaling: Writing about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings in order to understand them better
If emotional regulation is a challenge for you, therapy can help. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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