Learning Developmental Skills: Emotional Regulation

This post is a continuation of a series started in But therapy can take us a long way: Learning Developmental Skills Part 1. In this post, I want to talk about emotional regulation. We are not born knowing how to regulate our emotions. This is a skill that must be implicitly learned by being in the presence of another attuned human being who is capable of regulating their emotions. Which is why people with insecure attachment, or who suffered neglect or long-term abuse, often have difficultly “regulating” their emotions. They were never taught how to. The good news is that this is one of the things that can be fixed by therapy. Being with your therapist in a right-brain to right-brain way (with your feelings engaged, and experiencing attunement and limbic resonance) while accessing your intense emotions can teach you how to face and handle those emotions on your own.

So what does it mean to regulate your emotions? Your nervous system is essentially about moving energy. Emotions represent the energy that moves through your system. Our nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and para-sympathetic. When stimuli comes in and we react to it, our sympathetic system is activated. This part of our nervous system is where we “gear up” so to speak. For example, if you feel scared, your heart beat increases and your breathing quickens, to ready you to fight or flee the danger. The sympathetic system is what energizes us to meet any incoming challenges or stresses. But to live in a constant state of arousal is debilitating and exhausting. It takes too much energy. So when the stimuli to which we are reacting has passed, the para-sympathetic system then puts on the brakes and slows all those reactions down, returning us to equilibrium, where energy is conserved. But if we did not react to dangers, then the failure to react could get us killed.  So the two systems should act in balance to keep you alive and healthy. In really simplistic terms, the sympathetic system pumps energy into the system and the para-sympathetic drains it back off.

Another interesting aspect of the human nervous system is that physiologically our nervous system is open, which means when we are with another person, our nervous systems interact. There are parts of our brains, in both the limbic system and our frontal cortex, which are dedicated to perceiving another person’s emotional state and expressing ours. Actually this happens with any animals that are mammals since all mammals have a limbic system in their brains. You’re not imagining it when your dog senses that you are sad or you get a sense of joy from a playing dog. Or feel aloofness from a cat. 🙂 (I kid, I have both a dog and a cat and am a fan of both.) And it’s the reason that equine therapy works.

So regulating our emotions simply means that we can allow an emotion in, feel it, and let it flow through us. That our physiological systems gear up, but then return back to normal. The Boundary Ninja often talked about airports as a good example of attachment and emotional regulation. You can see someone dropping off someone they love, that they hug and sometimes cry, that its obvious that parting is significant and involves a lot of feeling. But if there is secure attachment, you could see the same person ten minutes later munching on a hot dog and looking perfectly fine. They experienced a rise in emotion when saying goodbye, but when it was over, those feelings dissipated and the person is once again fine. Being able to regulate your emotions provides emotional resiliency. You bounce back quickly.

Long term victims of trauma, especially when insecure attachment is involved, often lack this emotional resiliency. I experienced two different problems with my emotions, one of which I was actually oblivious to until I started healing. One was blocking my emotions and the other was being overwhelmed by them. When I was a child, I’m pretty sure that intense emotions were responded to either by my mother disappearing because she couldn’t handle my feelings or being punished by my father for daring to have needs of my own. On top of that, because of the abuse, I experienced intense, overwhelming feelings with which I had no help; feelings that were beyond my capacity to handle. So to feel was to be abandoned. I learned, over and over, that feelings were scary and to be avoided. It took me until around the age of 47 to actually realize I was a right-brained person. Once in a couples session, the BN was talking to my husband about an interaction between myself and him, and BN commented that my husband tended to be very logical in his approach, where I was more holistic and artistic. I almost fell off my chair. Seriously. At our next session, it was the first thing I brought up. As in “why in the world did you describe me that way?” (OK full confession, I was shocked but also flattered so I wanted to make sure I heard him right.)  He proceeded to give me examples and it really did make sense. But you know what I went to school for and studied? Engineering. Doesn’t get more left brain than that. I concentrated on my intellect to hold my emotions at bay.

Because I was so scared of my emotions, I often blocked them. So instead of the emotions flowing through me, they got jammed down and squashed into corners. Which builds up a lot of pressure. So when my emotions did come out, it was because they were too intense to hold in any longer. So most people would characterize me as VERY emotional (ok, wingnut might be used :)) because my expressed feelings were so intense. So imagine my shock when I realized how assiduously I avoided them.

When I would experience really intense emotions, especially if they were related to trauma, I would lock down. My face would be covered (sometimes with a pillow), I would be clenched and unmoving, not a sound would come out and I would even stop breathing. It was like my whole being was focused on NOT letting the feelings out. I remember once when I was doing that, the BN said very gently, “AG it’s ok to make some noise.” He told me over and over that it really was ok to express my feelings. One of my favorite memories of our sessions was once when I came in and was really struggling to speak and the BN said “I really do want to hear how you feel.”  OK, the subsequent meltdown might not have been quite what he was looking for. 🙂  His welcoming of my emotions made it safe to have them. As a matter of fact, the BN’s favorite saying was “this is a place where you can feel safe enough to feel scared.” (Sidenote: That phrase is distinctive enough that if, by some far-flung chance, you are another patient of the Boundary Ninja, you’ll probably realize I am talking about him. If that is true, he likes you SO much more than he does me, YOU are his favorite patient! :))

The other problem we can run into is being overwhelmed by our emotions, that what we experience is so intense our physiological system is over stimulated to the point of needing to shut down and dissociate. You can think of dissociating as the nervous system’s fuse. If you overload a circuit, a fuse goes off to break the circuit and stop the flow of electricity so that more important things are not damaged by surges of electricity. Dissociation is the body’s way of breaking the circuit of too much emotional energy and cutting off the flow of emotion so that important parts of you are not destroyed. But unlike an electrical system in which the excess current will flow off into the ground, excess emotional energy gets stored as a traumatic memory. So how do you connect again, and allow that energy to flow the way it should and return to a state of healthy equilibrium?

Remember earlier I mentioned that our nervous systems are open systems? If you become agitated but are with an attuned person who is calmer (a lower energy state), their nervous system acts as a kind of pressure valve, bleeding off your excess energy so that you can handle what’s left without “blowing a fuse.” It’s why humans seek out other humans when upset, we need help managing our energy flow. The calmer person is closer  to equilibrium which “pulls” the more upset person back towards the equilibrium their system is trying to achieve.  So in therapy, where it’s safe enough to feel scared (he still likes you better!), we can begin to allow those blocked, stored feelings out. But we do so in the presence of an attuned, regulated person. Being around someone whose nervous system is in a state of equilibrium (such as your therapist) who can hear and understand your feelings but remain calm, will pull your system towards a more stable place.  That interaction is at the heart of therapy. (It’s also the reason a therapist needs to maintain a certain level of detachment, but that’s a post for another day.)

I have experienced this from both sides of the equation. I have been really activated and upset and calmed down by interacting with my therapist and I’ve had the experience on the phone lines of remaining calm and unafraid while speaking to someone and seeing it calm them down.

So much of what I needed to look at involved feelings I had been repressing for years because I was too afraid of being overwhelmed by them. My sessions would often consist of discussing something that happened between the BN and I or how I was feeling about the relationship. As we talked, we would trace the feelings back to their origins. When I would make the connections to the events that caused those feelings, my affect  would often get quite strong. While we were talking BN was quite attuned, very focused on me and paying attention to everything going on. I remember once at the beginning of a session, telling him about something that had happened that weekend, that I had been really upset about but now I couldn’t get to my feelings. And he told me that I said I wasn’t able to feel anything but my body was saying differently. That my body was rigid, my fists were clenched and my voice was breaking. When he said that, I got out of my head and started paying attention to my body. When I did that the feelings, which were really intense, started flowing. So instead of shutting down or pushing them away, as scary as it was, I would let them come. And BN would stay with me, for lack of a better word. I could feel him right there. No matter how scared I felt, he never got scared. And as long as he wasn’t scared, it seemed ok to go there. If I started sobbing, he would soothe me with his voice and tell me it would be ok and allow me the space to feel it. But he would be calm. Because he was right there and I knew that he was understanding how I was feeling but was not getting upset or scared, it gave me the feeling that things would not careen out of control, so it was safe to feel whatever I was feeling. It was a slow, gradual process and was often very scary, but eventually from doing that, I learned not to be scared of my feelings, that they wouldn’t overwhelm and destroy me. He taught me that I didn’t need to be scared of my feelings and that I could let them flow through me. That my feelings would change, they would come and go, but that there was a consistent “I” having those feelings and I could trust that I would be ok no matter what feelings came along. As time went on, he gradually pulled back and provided less containment until I learned to manage my own feelings on my own, enough so that it started to feel safer experiencing my feelings outside of his office. Being able to do so, and not having to work to hold things in or down, freed up so much energy.

I hope that makes it somewhat clear, this is the part of therapy that was about us being together and being open to each other. It’s kind of a mysterious process because it’s not factual or logical, it’s very subjective. Learning to handle your emotions is learned implicitly, through practice, over and over, until one day you are shocked to realize that you are doing it on your own. Remember that feeling when the training wheels came off your bike and you realized that you could ride and keep your balance without them? It’s funny, BN and I have discussed this numerous times and we know that it works, but we don’t really understand it. Which makes it incredibly difficult to describe. But that doesn’t stop us from being awed by the process and grateful to experience it. And to know it’s never too late to learn to allow your feelings in and experience life fully.

  1. Starrynights
    March 25, 2012 at 1:31 am

    This ws a double-read for me – so insightful! I’m sitting here wondering if this is part of my problem – when I get super-frustrated and feel like I’m going to have a meltdown, sometimes I’ll punch myself really hard in the thigh. The physical pain seems to help somehow, and it’s much better than putting holes in walls! Anyway, I’m bookmarking this page, definitely need to ponder and reread.
    You, AG, have been a godsend, thank you so much!!



  2. Willow..
    April 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    “…,,So to feel was to be abandoned. “. Interesting…somewhere else the term abandonment came up, and while I don’t believe my parents ever ” abandoned me or us, I’m starting to think that is not always meant in a literal sense…..thank you..


    • April 22, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      I definitely do not mean abandoned in a literal sense (at least with my mom, my dad did disappear out of my life when I was 11, but that was not completely unwelcome and my mother didn’t cut me off until about a year ago… Hmm maybe there was some literal abandonment come to think of it. 🙂 ), I mean it in the emotional sense of not having parental attunement, of not having emotional needs met and being left on your own to cope with your emotions. Its funny, but the actual sexual abuse wasn’t nearly as damaging as being left on my own to manage the feelings created by the abuse. Terrifying stuff for a child. Glad this is food for thought (although sorry you can relate!) ~ AG


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