The 3 Levels of Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation is something I think we all wish we could do a little better…

  • To be able to resist the desire for that second helping of dessert
  • To calm our mind and stay focused when we feel anxious
  • To accept our grief and sadness with strength and compassion rather than avoiding it with distractions

Unfortunately, emotion regulation wasn’t a class most of us had to take in school. Which means, we’ve probably had to cobble together our own emotion regulation strategies as best we could.

And while these slapped together strategies might have served us okay, there’s likely a lot of room for improvement.

If you want to learn how to get better at dealing with difficult moods and emotions, a good place to start is by understanding what I call the 3 levels of emotion regulation.

But before we do, let’s take a quick minute to define our terms and talk about what emotion regulation is (and isn’t).


What Is Emotion Regulation?

Technically speaking, emotion regulation is a misnomer because you can’t actually regulate your emotion—not directly, anyway.

This makes sense if you think about it:

  • You can’t simply make yourself less sad any more than you can just flip a switch and make yourself happier.
  • You can’t turn down the volume on your anger any more than you can turn up the volume on how much you love someone.
  • You can’t just decide to feel confident any more than you can decide to feel motivated.

But even though we can’t control our emotions directly, we can influence them indirectly. And the two ways to do this are by changing how we think or how we act:

  • When you catastrophize that bad news you just got, you’re going to amplify your fear and anxiety. But if you restructure your initial automatic self-talk to be a bit more realistic, chances are your anxiety will lower.
  • When you feel depressed and unmotivated, staying on the couch and watching another rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond will probably only make you feel worse. But if you force yourself to get up and go for a jog or meet a friend for coffee, you’re likely to feel significantly better.

So, when you think about emotion regulation, the key question to ask yourself is this:

What consistent changes can I make to my thinking or behavior that will result in my emotions becoming less intense in the long run?

As we’ll see below, regulating your emotions well and maintaining a balanced interior life is not something you “just do.” It’s the result of many decisions—big and small—made consistently through time.

Okay, now that we’ve talked a little bit about what emotion regulation is (and isn’t), let’s look at the three levels of emotion regulation. You can think about these levels like stages in sophistication for how we approach emotion regulation.


1. Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking is the most basic—and ineffective—approach to regulating our emotions. It basically means hoping for the best.

For example:

  • You find yourself in a spiral of worries and anxiety about the future. So you keep telling yourself “I hope this ends soon.”
  • You keep replaying some painful memory in your head, desperately hoping that in the future you’ll be able to avoid anything that triggers you.
  • You feel a surge of anger boiling up inside you and pray that you don’t end up doing anything impulsive or reckless.

Obviously wishful thinking and hoping for the best doesn’t really work.

I mean, you may end up feeling better by chance. But the act of wishing for something to change doesn’t itself lead to things getting better.

Although wishful thinking might sound silly and primitive when you read about it, upon closer inspection I think you’ll find that you do a lot more wishful thinking about your emotions that you realize. We all do!

And for a very good reason:

Most of us weren’t taught very much about how emotions work. So we understandably feel helpless in the face of them.

Luckily, you can learn strategies and techniques that can change how you feel emotionally—and often for the better.

This is why most of us, through a long history of trial and error—plus a few self-help books along the way—develop a little tool belt of techniques we use to feel better in the face of difficult moods and emotion.

These are called coping skills. And they represent the second level of emotion regulation.

2. Coping Skills

When you hear the term coping skills or coping strategies you should think about Band-Aids: Something that’s useful to stop the symptoms, but doesn’t address the underlying issues.

For most people, coping skills make up the bulk of their emotion regulation strategy: When something happens and their mood or emotions dip, they open up their toolbox of coping skills and apply one in the hopes of feeling better:

  • You start feeling anxious, so you do a deep breathing exercise.
  • You start feeling angry, so you go into your room, put a pillow in front of your face, and “scream your anger out.”
  • You feel sad and ashamed after a fight with your spouse, so you go for a run to try and boost your mood.

There’s nothing wrong with coping skills per se. Sometimes a scraped knee is just a scraped knee, and all you need is a Band-Aid.

But when it comes to our emotional lives and dealing with painful feelings, coping skills can have important unintended side-effects—which, in the long-run, are often worse than the initial feeling bad:

Coping skills lead you to avoid looking for the root cause of your suffering.

When your immediate reaction to feeling bad is to feel better, that relief—while it feels good—also distracts you from asking some potential important questions:

  • What led to me feeling bad in the first place?
  • Was there a reason I was experiencing grief?
  • Was my frustration trying to tell me something?
  • What if my anxiety is trying to communicate something to me?

Emotions don’t always mean something—and they’re not always “correct”—but more often than we think, they are actually communicating something important. And we ignore that message at our peril.

If you get into the habit of blindly applying coping skills as soon as you feel bad, you miss out on the opportunity to do some deeper reflection to try and understand your emotions.

And if you’re chronically ignoring your painful emotions, chances are they will keep coming back, often more frequently and with more intensity.

As a therapist, my job is usually at least as much about teaching people to unlearn coping skills as it is to learn new ones. Because…

It’s only when you stop coping with your emotions that you have the headspace to be curious about them.

And you can’t understand your emotions without curiosity.

Of course, being willing to sit in and even welcome painful emotions is easier said than done. But if you don’t make time to understand the root cause of painful emotional patterns in your life—and keep kicking the can down the road with coping skills—you’ll be forever on the hamster wheel of escaping painful feelings. The real tragedy of which is, you spend so much time avoiding what you don’t want that you have no time (or energy) left to discover and go after what you do want.

A truly rich, meaningful life doesn’t mean the absence of painful emotions. It means accepting and understanding all your emotions, and being willing to carry them with you as you pursue your goals and aspirations—the stuff that really matters in life.

3. Habits

So far, I’ve argued that the first level of emotion regulation, wishful thinking, is an understandable but completely ineffective approach to dealing with difficult moods and emotions. In fact, it’s not really an emotion regulation strategy at all—it’s the lack of one.

Next, I made the case for why coping skills are a tempting but generally unhelpful strategy for emotion regulation: While they can provide temporary relief, often that comes at the cost of genuine understanding and acceptance of our emotions—and, in the long-run, that cost is almost never worth it.

The third and final level of emotion regulation is habits.

If coping skills are best thought of with the Band-Aid analogy, a good metaphor for habits is the common phrase “Prevention is the best medicine.”

Talk to any cardiologist and they’ll tell you that, while there are many wonderful techniques and strategies for managing heart disease, the best approach to cardiac health is to avoid getting heart disease in the first place—usually through a combination of healthy lifestyle factors like regular exercise and a healthy diet.

Well, the same thing is largely true in emotional health:

The best emotion regulation strategies are the ones that prevent emotions from becoming difficult to manage in the first place.

But this is harder than it sounds because it means facing up to and confronting what’s hard in the moment rather than avoiding it and putting it off until later:

  • Suppose you struggle with anxiety and worry. Often, the reason people struggle with chronic worry and all the anxiety it generates is because they’re afraid to stand up for themselves and express what they really want (or don’t want). This means that in order to get to the root of the worry and anxiety, you need to cultivate a habit of communicating assertively and setting healthy boundaries for yourself.
  • Maybe you struggle with procrastination. Usually procrastination is the result of either working on things you don’t really value or lacking clarity about those values. This means that building a habit of identifying, checking in on, and clarifying your values may be key to avoiding procrastination in the first place.
  • Or suppose you just tend to overthink everything, leading to chronic stress and low self-esteem. The root of your overthinking may be that your attentional muscles are weak—which means that you have a hard time disengaging from thoughts and emotions when they enter your mind. So, building a mindfulness practice might be a bit that would address this issue since it would strengthen that attentional muscle and help you take control of your thinking rather than being controlled by it.

A truly effective emotion regulation strategy involves cultivating a set of healthy habits that address your issues before they ever become issues by keeping you self-aware, mentally flexible, and emotionally balanced.

Of course, this is very hard work. Building new habits and changing your lifestyle is far from easy and requires a lot of focus, determination, and patience.

But here’s the thing: Is it really more work than what you’re doing now?

  • Saving money when you’re young so you can retire when you’re old is hard work. But it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to work when you’re old.
  • Similarly, building the habits necessary to deal with emotional difficulty early, before they become problems, is definitely hard work. But it’s a lot easier than letting yourself get overwhelmed by difficult moods and emotions and vainly trying to cope with them 24/7.

If you’re serious about improving your ability to regulate difficult moods and emotions, you need to get serious about building better habits.

5 Habits to Improve Your Emotion Regulation Skills

Everyone’s emotion regulation challenges are different, of course.

For one person, regulating anxiety and worry may be the chief challenge, but for another, it might be anger and frustration. What’s more, two people who struggle with anxiety, for instance, may have completely different causes of their anxiety, which may require different strategies to regulate them effectively.

That being said, there are a common set of habits I believe everyone can benefit from cultivating, regardless of the details of your struggles.

What follows are 5 psychological habits you can build that will dramatically improve your ability to regulate painful moods and emotions. Combine one or two of them with better habits of sleep, diet, and exercise, and you’ll be well on your way to gentler moods and more balanced emotions.

  1. Mindfulness. Most people talk about mindfulness as a coping skill to provide a little relaxation or relief from anxiety. But the real benefit of cultivating a serious mindfulness practice is that it trains and strengthens your attentional muscle—your ability to keep your focus on one thing or shift it off of something unhelpful and back on to something useful. How you chronically think determines how you chronically feel. But how you chronically think depends on your ability to control and modulate your attention, which is exactly what serious mindfulness helps you do. Learn more: How to Start a Mindfulness Practice.
  2. Self-compassion. Self-compassion is a technical-sounding term for a remarkably simple idea: Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend, especially after mistakes or setbacks. Ironically, most of us tend to be overly-judgmental and harsh with ourselves for our faults and mistakes. But this self-judgment only adds to our suffering and the intensity of our painful feelings. Bad moods come from being judgmental of difficult feelings. On the other hand, when you train yourself to be empathetic, understanding, and compassionate with yourself, you drastically cut down on the intensity of your painful emotions. Think about it this way: Feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad. Learn more: Self-compassion.
  3. Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive restructuring means learning to identify unrealistic negative self-talk and restructure it to be more balanced, accurate, and helpful. In other words, it’s an exercise that trains your self-talk to work for you rather than against you. Rather than amplifying difficult emotions, you can retrain your self-talk to modulate them and balance them out. Learn more: The Complete Guide to Cognitive Restructuring.
  4. Values Clarification. Much of the time we end up intensifying our difficult moods and emotions by trying to get rid of them or avoid them. Unfortunately, when you treat your emotions like a problem, you train your brain to view them that way. Which means the next time they show up, you’re going to experience fear on top of whatever emotion you were already experiencing. Ultimately, you escape this vicious cycle by learning to accept your emotions and get on with life regardless of how you feel. Easier said than done, of course. But it does become far easier to tolerate difficult emotions if you’re clear about your values—the things you really want to move toward in your life. Learn more: Know Your Values: 7 Ways to Clarify Your Personal Values
  5. Assertiveness. Assertiveness means the ability to ask for what you want—or say no to what you don’t want—in a way that’s honest to yourself and respectful of others. Many people struggle with being overly passive: They habitually defer their own wants and needs in order to avoid conflict or please others. Unfortunately, in the long-run this leads to a lot of resentment, anxiety, and difficulty regulating emotions generally. On the other hand, when you train yourself to communicate assertively, it’s like a release valve for all the emotional pressure you carry around. Learn more: Assertiveness: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

These five habits represent fundamental skills for a healthy and balanced emotional life.

Remember: Effective emotion regulation isn’t something you do on the fly every once in a while—it’s an ability that’s cultivated and strengthened through a commitment to good habits implemented consistently over time.


All You Need to Know

There are more or less effective ways to approach emotion regulation. The less effective approaches include wishful thinking and coping skills. However, if you want to seriously improve your ability to deal with difficult moods and emotions in your life, learn to cultivate healthy habits that strengthen your emotional health.

Several of the most effective habits for emotion regulation include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Self-compassion
  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Values Clarification
  • Assertiveness

9 Comments

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Thank you Nick for beautifully clarifying this topic of control of emotions in this article. Such an important topic. Lots of valuable learning for me here. Well worth reading again and again and implementing the five habits you recommend into my daily life.

OK but superficial . So much of our lives are out of our control these days. Covid comes along, you lose your social network, your job, your income,…. Less catastrophic, but at any time the government can crank up property taxes, income taxes, while your Social security is frozen. Cancer changes all your calculations. The city builds a 4-story apartment complex in your backyard so your property value takes a nose dive. To not be anxious is to be delusional.

Hey Laurie, I think it’s possible to be concerned and aware without being anxious—or at least a little less anxious.

I like your approach, simple and true, especially when the thing you write about are so problematic for most people. Thank you.
Best wishes.

As always, your articles are incredibly well written and arrive in my inbox when I really need to read them. Thank you ever so much for taking the time to share these important habits and I will be rereading them, especially when I start thinking ‘something is wrong with me’ and learn to put them into place in my life. You are one of my favourite authors and I am grateful for your sharing.

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