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Emotions, emotional health, and emotional regulation

Reviewed by Cathy Leeson

An emotions concept featuring colored paper as different emotions.

What Is Emotion?

An emotion is a feeling that is influenced by the situation someone is in and their current circumstances. Our thoughts also influence our emotions. Emotions can cause physical changes in the body that affect what we think and do. 

Mood vs. Emotion: What’s the Difference?

Moods and emotions are often connected. However, they are different in several aspects. A mood is a more general emotional state, while an emotion is more intense and is often a response to a specific person, object, or situation. 

Moods are typically longer-lasting, occurring over the course of several hours or days. Emotions, on the other hand, may only last for a few minutes at a time.

Understanding Emotions

Emotions are complex states that researchers have struggled to define and fully understand. There have been many different frameworks for understanding them, such as the wheel of emotions1, introduced by Robert Plutchik. 

Plutchik, along with most other researchers, suggested that there are a set of basic, universal feelings. These give rise to all other emotions, which are varying shades of the basic ones. For example, frustration and rage may be a subset of anger, while melancholy and loneliness may be a subset of sadness.

6 Universal Emotions

Psychologist Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions after conducting studies on the Fori tribe in Papua New Guinea2. Although being isolated from the cultures of others, the tribe members identified the following emotions when shown pictures of expressions:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surprise

Additional researchers confirmed that the above six emotions were universally recognized. 

Modal Model of Emotion

The modal model of emotion is explained in the Handbook of Emotion Regulation3, suggesting that emotions occur in a sequence of events, including:

  1. Situation: What is happening (real or imagined) to someone at the moment
  2. Attention: The specific details that someone focuses on
  3. Appraisal: Deciding what the situation means to oneself 
  4. Response: Behaviors (e.g., shouting) or physical changes (e.g., blushing) in response to the appraisal

3 Components of Emotion

There are three major components when it comes to understanding emotions. These include:

  1. Subjective experience: Everyone’s experience with emotions is subjective, meaning that everyone feels emotions from their unique perspective. In addition, people don’t always experience pure emotions. Instead, they’ll likely feel a mix of emotions depending on the situation.
  2. Physiological response: When we experience emotions, we also experience physiological responses. For example, someone might experience stomach pain when nervous or a racing heart when afraid. These are involuntary responses that help prepare the body to face the situation. 
  3. Behavioral response: Behavioral responses refer to how we actually express our emotions. Emotional expression plays a major role in someone’s body language, and being able to read others’ feelings is key to emotional intelligence.

What Is Emotional Health?

Emotional health refers to someone’s awareness of their emotions and their ability to manage them. It also involves a person’s ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others in healthy ways. Emotional regulation skills play a significant part in emotional health.

Mental vs. Emotional Health: What’s the Difference?

Mental health refers to one’s ability to cope with stress and integrate both the joys and struggles of life into one’s sense of self. It encompasses physical, psychological, and emotional health. 

Emotional health refers to one’s ability to understand and express their emotions. It also involves a person’s ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others in healthy ways. Emotional regulation skills play a significant part in emotional health.

What Is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation involves the ability to manage one’s emotions. Someone with good emotional regulation is able to take actions to deal with their emotions instead of suppressing them or expressing them in an inappropriate manner. Emotional regulation can be improved by a variety of strategies.  

5 Emotional Regulation Strategies

The modal model of emotion believes that emotions occur in a sequence of four steps. At each point, there is the chance for emotional regulation in the following order:

  • Situation selection: The first step involves making an intentional choice to engage with or avoid an emotional situation. For example, if you know that going out to dinner with your family will likely result in emotional distress, you might choose not to go.
  • Situation modification: If you do decide to interact with a potentially emotional situation, you can always change your external experience of the situation. Going back to that family dinner example, you might decide to bring a friend for emotional support, or schedule an appointment so you have a definite time you must leave by.
  • Attention deployment: Once you’re in a potentially emotional situation, you may feel a surge of emotions. One method you can use to deal with these emotions is to focus your attention elsewhere. At dinner, you might focus on the menu or make a game of watching other diners.
  • Cognitive change: When you’re in an emotionally-charged situation, you may change your internal experience of it. If your parent is berating you at dinner, for example, you can hold onto internal truths, such as, “I am not who my parent thinks I am,” or, “Parents shouldn’t speak to their children this way.”
  • Response modulation: Finally, you can choose different ways of expressing your emotion. If you’re upset with your parent for speaking to you rudely at dinner, you can set boundaries about what sorts of conversations you will or will not tolerate in their presence. 

Emotional Dysregulation & Mental Illness

Emotional dysregulation may be a symptom of certain mental health disorders, including:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): People who have ADHD often feel emotions more intensely than others, causing emotional dysregulation. They may also struggle to put helpful behaviors into practice because of  executive dysfunction.
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Those who have autism spectrum disorder might struggle with emotional dysregulation when faced with situations that disrupt their routine or overload their senses. 
  • Personality disorders: Certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, may cause increased emotional reactivity and sensitivity, leading to emotional dysregulation.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD can occur after being involved in a traumatic event. People with PTSD may experience emotional dysregulation when remembering their experience or if they are triggered into a trauma response.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD involves obsessions, unwanted thoughts, and compulsive actions. Often, the need to act on compulsions can make it difficult to regulate emotions.

Emotional Dysregulation Treatment

Emotional Regulation Therapy

There are many therapeutic treatment options that can help someone who struggles with emotional dysregulation, including: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help someone shift their focus away from negative thoughts to help control the intensity of their emotions. 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT can improve emotional regulation by helping someone understand their emotions and decreasing the suffering that their emotions might cause. 
  • Radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT): RO-DBT can help someone express their emotions to improve communication and social skills. 
  • Acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT): ACT involves taking in current emotions and learning to express them in positive ways. 

Medication

For some, medication can help with emotional regulation. Those who struggle with a depressed mood or anxiety might benefit from antidepressants or mood stabilizers. This provides them with a baseline to begin regulating their emotions more effectively.

Emotional Health Skills

Here are some actions you can take to improve your emotional health:

  • Self-regulation: Being aware of and managing emotions and behaviors
  • Self-care: Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly
  • Stress management: Practicing relaxation techniques to reduce stress
  • 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 down thoughts, feelings, and emotions in order to better understand them 

If you’re struggling to improve your emotional regulation on your own, help is available. Find a therapist for emotional dysregulation near you today. 

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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