Managing Emotions Effectively in Uncertain Times
By Marc Brackett
When we are overly stressed and worried, like many of us have felt lately with threats like the coronavirus, it becomes even more difficult to regulate our emotions with effective strategies.
But what exactly is effective emotion regulation?
Emotion regulation is how we deal with the feelings we experience from moment to moment to have wellbeing, build positive relationships, and achieve desired goals. When we’re feeling disappointed or joyful or anxious or motivated, what do we do to feel more or less of that feeling? What do we do to hang onto that feeling or shift to feeling something different? Importantly, from an emotional intelligence perspective, emotion regulation involves accepting feelings as they come and go – which they mostly do – so we are not overly attached, reactive or overwhelmed by them.
It’s helpful to think about emotion regulation in two parts: goals and strategies.
The first part is our goal. Goals we have for our emotions are like goals in many sports: we look at the net or goalposts, and we decide where we want the ball or puck to go. When we set a goal for regulating our emotions, we are deciding where we want our emotions to go. Do we want them to go up—like feeling even more joyful about a party we’re planning? Or, do we want our emotions to go down—like feeling less anxious about our ability to control what’s happening in our environment with the coronavirus. In sports, we have a goal that includes where the ball or puck is now and where we want it to be. With our emotions, we do the same—we set a goal by asking ourselves “what am I feeling now, and how do I want to feel?”
The second part of managing emotions is the strategy we decide to use. We know where we want the ball or puck to go, but how will we get it there? Will we hit it straight in? Or will we pass it to another player first? That is our strategy. Strategies are how we will achieve our goals. If we’re feeling anxious or worried about what’s happening around us, and we really want to feel less nervous… or calmer, what would our strategy be? Maybe we could take some deep breaths?
Mindful breathing is perhaps the ultimate prevention strategy. As we’ve learned, daily practice enhances our ability to be present, accept feelings as they come and go, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by them.
An additional and very effective strategy is to simply adjust our thinking. It’s convenient because our thoughts happen in our head, so we can change them pretty much anytime and anyplace. When we want to feel less anxious, we can ask ourselves, “Is there another way to think about this situation? Or we can say something positive or supportive to ourselves in our heads.
One way to help you get better at this is to consider what you might tell a close friend or loved one who is feeling anxious. Try it. List out 3-5 things you might tell a friend who is feeling worried or anxious about the coronavirus. Now, can you apply those same strategies to yourself?
But how do we get good at it?
Just like in sports, managing our emotions takes time and practice. The very first time Lionel Messi stepped onto the field or Wayne Gretzky entered the rink, they probably weren’t really sure what to do. They may have known that they wanted to aim for the net but little else. They probably missed a lot of goals and tried a lot of strategies before they became pros. In fact, Wayne Gretzky is known for his famous quote, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” That’s his strategy--what he says to himself when he wants to feel less discouraged.
What else can help?
- Because emotion regulation requires brainpower—it depends on seemingly unrelated factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep. When we eat poorly, our minds don’t function properly. Too much sugar causes our blood glucose to spike and then plummet, which affects cognitive functioning and self-control, especially around healthy eating. So make sure you have some healthy snacks in your desk at work or set a reminder on your phone to ensure you nibble every three hours or so.
- Too little physical activity also has a negative effect on our mental capacity and moods. In one study, subjects were exposed to a stressor, and then half of the participants did aerobic exercise while the others did not. The exercisers reported feeling significantly less negative than the other group. Even anxiety and depression can be reduced by exercise. So make sure you are getting in some movement!
- Poor quality or insufficient sleep has similar effects on our emotions—when we’re tired, our defenses are down and our ability to function mentally is low. Sleep serves a restorative function. When we don’t get enough, or we get too much, we show more symptoms of anxiety and depression, greater fatigue, and hostility. Inadequate sleep is associated with reduced connections between brain regions responsible for cognitive control and behavior and the use of effective emotion regulation strategies.
- Do things you love. Spend time with family and friends, pursue passions and pastimes, get in touch with your spiritual side, immerse yourself in nature, read a good book, or watch a funny movie. We build up cognitive reserves that way, which can help us during these emotionally challenging times. We are hardwired to seek social contact and support—people who lack it are prone to anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease. Social distance, which we know will help spread the coronavirus does not mean we have to socially disconnect!
Finally, in these trying times, there are a few additional things you can do. And specifically, some things to help with situations you might face with coronavirus:
- First, control the amount of information you take in. Take breaks from reading the news and social media.
- Second, don’t be afraid to say no. It’s okay not to hug, kiss, or shake hands right now. If you’re at a loss for words, you can use the namaste symbol.
- Third, be your “best self” when dealing with stigma and fears. It’s always best to have compassion for compassion for those who are ill and those whose lives have been disrupted by the virus or society’s response to it.
- And finally, try your best to support friends, family members, and co-workers who are feeling anxious or worried. When we support others, we not only help them, but we feel better ourselves.
Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Pieces of this article were excerpted from the new book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett. Copyright © 2019 Marc Brackett. Reprinted with the permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, LLC.