Tips On How To Manage Overpowering Emotions

A new psychology study offers advice about how to manage emotional swings.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 21, 2022

A new paper published in the academic journal Canadian Psychology attempts to define an important yet elusive concept in clinical psychology: emotion dysregulation. According to the researchers, it is best understood as the repeated encroachment of unhelpful emotional patterns. They suggest that emotion dysregulation is at the heart of many psychological disorders.

"Emotion dysregulation is a construct that has only recently begun to be studied in the context of mental health, despite emotions playing such a big role in our day-to-day life," says Arela Agako, a psychology resident at McMaster University in Canada and lead author of the research. "We were interested in learning what emotion dysregulation really is so we can study it better."

To do so, the researchers conducted a comprehensive literature review on the topic of emotion dysregulation, looking specifically at how emotion dysregulation was defined and measured in prior studies. They found past research on emotion dysregulation to coalesce around five broad themes: brain activation, physiology, cognition, behavior, and individual experience.

"We can draw some conclusions from the overlap between all the different theories out there that try to define emotions and emotion dysregulation," says Agako. "For example, in the case of fear, our amygdala gets activated (brain activation), we notice a lot of changes in our body such as heart rate increasing (physiology), we might notice thoughts related to danger (cognition), we might have an urge to run away (behavior), and we also might have different ways of describing this experience (experiential)."

Understanding how emotions are felt and processed can help researchers and clinicians diagnose and treat emotional problems.

"Emotion dysregulation may present itself in many ways," says Agako. "For instance, an emotion is activated when it is not helpful or needed, an emotion isn't activated when it is needed, the intensity of the emotion is either too high or too low than what is helpful in the moment, or the emotion lasts longer or shorter than we need it to. This happens to everyone because our brains and bodies aren't perfect."

According to the researchers, emotion dysregulation becomes problematic when it causes significant distress or begins to interfere with one's ability to handle their daily responsibilities.

"If these situations are only happening a handful of times, then it usually doesn't cause us too many problems," says Agako. "However, if we constantly have trouble with managing fear because it's too intense or we get stuck in sadness for days or weeks at a time, then we may need to seek help so we can learn more strategies about managing emotions in a helpful way."

The authors offer a few tips for people who struggle to keep their emotions under control. For instance, they suggest:

  • Making time for the emotion, preferably in a comfortable setting and when you can dedicate a few minutes to it without being interrupted
  • Noticing precisely what the emotion feels like in your body
  • Trying to name the emotion
  • Reflecting on whether the emotion was justified by the situation or whether it came from somewhere else
  • If the emotion is justified, ask yourself what the emotion is telling you that you need in that moment. Is it finding social support, figuring out a way to get out of a dangerous situation, apologizing to someone, practicing self-compassion, or something else?
  • If the emotion isn't justified, ask yourself if there is another way to think of the situation or what you might say to a friend who is in the same situation

"If you are still having a hard time with the emotion or resisting engaging in unhelpful behaviors after these steps, then seeking mental healthcare, therapy, or contacting a local crisis line will be crucial," says Agako.

A full interview with Arela Agako discussing her new research on emotion dysregulation can be found here: How to untangle your dysregulated emotions