How Do You Regulate Emotions Under Stress?

Are your emotions in you, or are they in the room?

Posted Nov 05, 2014

Emotion regulation calms us down when we're upset and picks us up when we feel low. It has two major components: achieving internal comfort (feeling better) and motivating successful behavior. If functions as a kind of thermostat and an action signal for negotiating the environment. But, alas, it's hard to do under stress.

The alarm-driven Toddler brain – where we’re likely to retreat under stress (see post) - is ill-equipped to calm us down or figure out how to negotiate the environment. With little development in the regulatory hub of the prefrontal cortex, toddlers must seek external regulation of their emotions, usually from their parents. This is sometimes difficult to do in their struggle with the Grand Human Contradiction, where the drive for autonomy (freedom and self-sufficiency) competes with the equally strong drive for emotional connection and reliance. Although seeking comfort in the connection seems to threaten autonomy, the cost of emotion dysregulation – feeling overwhelmed or out of control – is intolerable. Most toddlers find a way to get their parents to make them feel better, either by coercion (temper tantrums) or irresistible cuteness.

Adults in the habit of retreating to the Toddler brain under stress feel a similar need for external regulation of emotions. Since they’re no longer adorably cute, they’re likely to use criticism, control, abuse, or seduction to feel temporarily more powerful, at the cost of long-term wellbeing and stable relationships.

External regulation of emotions is a no-win venture, even if you go about it through seduction rather than coercion. It’s just too hard to regulate an internal system by controlling external conditions. That’s like a thermostat trying to keep it comfortable in the room by blowing warm or cool air around the outside perimeter of the building.

We persist in this hapless task because the Toddler brain cannot regulate feelings with appraisals of what is really happening in the outside world. (This is like confusing the signal from a smoke alarm with a raging fire.) Neither can it regulate emotions with commitment to deeper values. (Values – as opposed to preferences - are a function of the Adult brain.) Not surprisingly, external regulation of emotions has been linked in research to depression and anger problems, both of which are reactions to feelings of powerlessness.

Where Pain Becomes Suffering

As a life-saving alarm system, pain keeps us focused on distress, for the purpose of relieving it. Pain motivates behavior that will help heal, repair, or improve. A pain in the foot, for example, motivates taking the rock off it, getting more comfortable shoes, soaking it in a tub of warm water, or visiting a podiatrist.

If we do not act on the motivation to heal-repair-improve (or fail in our attempts to do so), the alarm of pain intensifies and generalizes. The toothache becomes facial pain; the sore foot seems to throb along the whole side of the body. When pain intensifies and generalizes over time, it becomes suffering. Suffering is repeated failure to act successfully on the natural motivation of pain to do something that will heal, repair, or improve. In the Toddler brain, we’re more likely to focus on the alarm and ignore the motivation to heal, repair, improve. In the Toddler brain, pain becomes suffering.

Like its physical counterpart, normal psychological pain (not caused by brain disease or severe disorder) is localized in the beginning, usually in the form of guilt or anxiety about something specific. Also like physical pain, failure to act on the motivation to heal-repair-improve intensifies and generalizes the alarm. Guilt becomes shame (feeling inadequate or defective) or depression (nothing matters), and anxiety becomes chronic dread or inability to relax, sleeplessness, and hypervigilance – expecting danger everywhere.

When it comes to emotional pain, the behavior choices that will heal, repair, or improve are more ambiguous. As psychological pain generalizes, it seems to be about the self - a kind of self-ache. (In the Toddler brain, everything is about the newly emerging sense of self.) As the alarm of pain intensifies, it strengthens focus on our own distress, making us self-obsessed. Eventually we identify with the pain, in a subtle or overt victim-identity. At that point, we can scarcely perceive the pain of other people that does not seem to match our own experience. This heightened self-obsession makes the alarm of pain louder and more general, impeding genuine connections that heal and promote growth.

Experiencing compassion for other people heals the self. Receiving it from others is healing only to the extent that it makes it easier to escape the prison of self-obsession to appreciate, admire, and sympathize with the hardship and wondrous resilience of other people. The compassion we give regulates our painful emotions and renders unnecessary the need to manipulate or devalue others.

Copyright, Steven Stosny in Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress 2014