As a therapist who talks and writes about mental strength, I often hear people say things like, “I can’t control my emotions.” Occasionally, readers will even make comments like, “You shouldn’t try to control your emotions. It’s not good for you.”
But it appears that people who make that assumption are confusing emotion regulation with suppression—and they’re not the same thing. Just because you wake up grumpy doesn’t mean you have to stay in a bad mood. And just because you’re nervous about something doesn’t mean you can’t calm yourself down.
Regulating your emotions is about choosing to take charge of how you feel. That doesn’t mean you should force yourself to be happy all the time—in fact, research shows that forcing yourself to feel happy all the time backfires. But it does mean that you can make choices to boost your mood when you’re down or calm yourself when you’re upset.
Here are five skills that can help change how you feel:
The more you think upsetting thoughts, the worse you’ll feel. So rather than rehash that mean thing your spouse said, or worry about that stressful meeting tomorrow, distract yourself with an activity: Listen to music, go for a walk, or do whatever you can to change the channel in your brain.
Studies show that distraction is the most effective way to deal with intense distress. If you’re sitting in the dentist’s office waiting to undergo a root canal, distract yourself with a magazine or text a friend about an unrelated topic. And try to find something to occupy your mind during the root canal, too—distraction can be effective in reducing physical pain.
Changing the way you look at a situation changes the way you feel. Telling yourself that your overly talkative friend is just in need of emotional support or reminding yourself that a co-worker’s annoying questions stem from his desire to do his best can help you stay calm.
Cognitive reappraisal is one of the quickest ways to shift your emotions. Research shows that changing the way you think about a situation changes your body’s physiological response. Your heart is less likely to race so fast when you’re angry, and your palms might not sweat as much when you’re nervous, which can be a key to keeping intense emotions at bay.
Laughter creates changes in your brain and gives you an immediate positive boost in mood. A good sense of humor has been linked to everything from improved physical health to a better social life. Whether you crack a joke or your friend says something funny, good-natured humor is key to managing your emotions. Studies show, however, that mean-spirited humor is much less effective in changing your emotional state.
Temporal distancing changes your mindset by helping you look at the bigger picture. Think about the present from your future self. Imagine how much today’s concern will matter one, five, or 10 years from today. Whether you’re upset that you didn’t get a promotion, or nervous about a life decision you need to make, you may realize that those things might not matter much far down the road. Studies show that gaining proper perspective helps you stay calm, even in tough situations.
If changing the way you think about a situation doesn’t seem like a viable option, change the environment. An environmental change may involve a major modification, such as changing jobs or moving to a new city. But studies show it doesn’t need to be a drastic change in order to be effective: Deciding to sit next to a more positive co-worker instead of a negative one or choosing to go for a walk during your lunch break instead of eating at your desk might be all you need to boost your mood.
Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, psychology instructor, and speaker. Her book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do is on sale now. She’s frequently quoted in national media outlets. She also writes for Forbes and About.com. For more visit AmyMorinLCSW.com