Emotions function like a compass, signaling rewards and threats in the environment. However, this compass is far from infallible. In fact, it is relatively easy for it to point us in the wrong direction. When that happens, we end up approaching and avoiding the wrong situations and/or people, which can, in turn, be quite problematic for our long-term goals.
For example, if we feel anxious about telling our boss that we made a mistake, we might experience a motivation to avoid him. But, he might still hear about this error from other people, which might jeopardize our chance at obtaining that promotion we have been going after for months. In this case, following our anxiety can get us in trouble.
Thus, it becomes really important that we learn how and when to trust our emotional compass. Stated in more technical terms, we sometimes need to regulate our emotions so that our behavior does not end up at their mercy. Now, this does not mean that emotions are “bad” or that we should try not to have them. Quite the contrary. This suggests that emotions have great potential for helping us navigate the environment. We just have to experience them at the level that is most optimal in each context.
Let's imagine that we go to a bar and see our crush. We get so excited about the possibility of talking to him/her that we end up consuming many more drinks than we had initially wanted. As a result, we might end up with a hangover the following morning. We might skip work and get in trouble for missing out on an important meeting. In this case, our unchecked excitement led to negative consequences. It would have been more adaptive for us to down-regulate it. For example, we could have reminded ourselves of the potentially negative consequences of drinking too much alcohol on work nights.
Other times, we might not feel enough excitement about doing certain things. For example, we might not be particularly thrilled about running errands. When our excitement is low, we might find ourselves not having enough motivation to carry out certain actions. This is when we are more vulnerable to procrastination. In these cases, it can useful to up-regulate our excitement. For example, we could remind ourselves of the sense of accomplishment we feel whenever we complete a task.
Let's turn to a couple of examples on anxiety. If we are feeling very anxious about going on a first date, we might experience a strong motivation to cancel it. In this case, it might be necessary to down-regulate our anxiety by reminding ourselves that the other person must be interested in us if they asked us out. In other situations, however, we might not feel enough anxiety and this might put us in danger. For example, if we are not anxious about getting injured in a car accident, we might be less likely to buckle up. In such cases, up-regulating our anxiety by reminding ourselves of the dangers of riding without a seatbelt could prevent us from getting hurt.
For now, let’s try a home experiment. As you go through your day, think of whether you are actively trying to change how you are feeling. Are you distracting yourself from painful memories? Are you avoiding certain people who make you feel irritated? Are you trying to find alternative explanations for something that is upsetting you? Are you eating a cupcake to feel less nervous?
As you can see, there are many ways in which you can regulate your emotions. See if you can notice any patterns. Do you gravitate towards using a particular type of strategy? Do you wish you used different ones? Feel free to comment below!
Copyright Amelia Aldao, Ph.D.