One of the most common types of questions I get as a therapist pertains to people wanting to know if they are “normal” in some way. Here’s an exchange I had with a person in therapy recently:
Person: “Well, you’re the expert, so please tell me. I think it’s normal that I’m angry at my husband for cheating. Am I right?”
Me: “Yes, in a sense it is normal that you are angry at him. But we’ve been working through this for many months, and it seems the intensity of your anger has not decreased and you are not just angry at him, but you seem angry about a lot of things in general in your life. I’ve noticed that you get angry often.”
I think people tend to ask if their emotions are “normal” when they suspect that the intensity of their reactions or the frequency of their negative feelings are problematic. I’m not a fan of the word “normal” because, to me, it is a statistical term. It also seems to imply that a large majority of people experience the same thing, and because of this, it must be “healthy.” It is entirely possible many people experience intense emotions on a frequent basis, but that does not mean this is healthy.
One benchmark of emotional and psychological health is the ability to regulate affect. In other words, if your emotions frequently impact you, or if you find it difficult to let go of negative emotions; reduce the intensity of your emotions; or shift from a negative emotional state (anger, anxiety, etc.) into a positive state (calm, joy, optimism, etc.), then your emotional regulation may not be entirely healthy.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?
There are many reasons a person’s emotions may not be well regulated. These can include growing up in a home where the adults did not have good emotion regulation skills, growing up in a family where there was substance abuse, not being taught emotion regulation skills as a child, being raised by parents who were afraid to hold appropriate boundaries, and experiencing trauma.
Research (Thompson & Calkins, 1996; Thompson, Flood, & Lundquist, 1995) shows that children raised in emotionally difficult environments have more difficulties with how they feel later in life. Trauma in either childhood or adulthood can lead to a dysregulation of affect (Seligowski, A. V. et al., 2015). Psychology researcher Allan Shore writes, “A large number of studies now demonstrate that alterations of brain development are associated with less than optimal early maternal care, especially with severe ‘relational trauma’ such as abuse and neglect” (Shore, A., 2011). (Author’s note: Although Shore uses the term “maternal,” it is generally accepted that this is taken to mean the child’s primary caretaker[s], male or female.)
What Does ‘Healthy’ Emotional Regulation Look Like?
Here are examples of emotional reactions I would consider within the range of “healthy”:
- You are frustrated by your toddler who is constantly pouring liquids in various places. You take a deep breath and let the realization set in that he is learning containment and volume. You lovingly direct him to a pouring station you set up on your patio.
- You feel angry, hurt, and betrayed that your husband cheated. After your initial anger subsides a bit, you begin to think about the situation more clearly and realize he has been expressing loneliness in the marriage and you have ignored that. In time, you are able to acknowledge your role in the marital dynamic and feel some empathy for the emptiness that led your husband to seek comfort elsewhere. You know people sometimes make errors in judgment, and you forgive him and work toward rebuilding your relationship. (Or you decide you prefer to part ways, but move past your anger and rebuild your life.)
- You are frustrated by both the person in front of you in the grocery store checkout line who has 50 coupons and the cashier who is much too slow. But you realize not everyone has the same abilities or the same life challenges, and you wait patiently.
- You are anxious about a family member being several hours late to an event, but you assume that more than likely everything is fine and they will call you as soon as they can.
- You are annoyed that your contractor didn’t return your call quickly, but you understand that sometimes people are busy and get overwhelmed. You give him a reasonable amount of time and follow up cordially.
- Your boyfriend breaks up with you. You are hurt and disappointed, but you practice good self-care and remind yourself that you will get over the pain and find a relationship partner who is a better match for you.
What Does ‘Unhealthy’ Emotion Regulation Look Like?
The reactions below indicate you may have trouble regulating your emotions:
- When your toddler pours liquids in various places, you yell at him, tell him he is being a “bad boy,” and punish him somehow.
- When your husband strays, you hold onto your anger for months or even years, unable to forgive. Many things trigger your anger: It comes back in full force when you hear of someone cheating on their spouse, when you see infidelity in a movie, or when your husband does something inconsiderate.
- Irritated, you tell the person in front of you in the checkout line that they are being inconsiderate and holding everyone else up. You tell the cashier to speed things up, too.
- When your family member is several hours late to an event, you call and text the person multiple times. When you do not hear from them, you begin to worry that something horrible has happened, or you become angry at them for being rude.
- When your contractor doesn’t return your call quickly, you leave a message telling him he’s unprofessional and the way he is treating you is unacceptable.
- You are devastated when your boyfriend breaks up with you. You call him several times and angrily insist he meet with you to talk things over. You ask for explanations and beg him to try again. When he refuses, your rage intensifies and you act out.
3 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Health
1. Find the right therapist. If you relate to any of the “unhealthy” reactions above, you may benefit from working with a therapist. In particular, a therapist trained in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and psychodynamic therapy would likely be able to help you reduce the intensity of your emotions and improve your emotion regulation skills.
2. Get a DBT workbook. Dialectical behavior therapy has an excellent track record for helping improve emotion regulation skills. Make a commitment to spending 30 minutes a week reading and doing exercises in the workbook for as long as it takes to feel your emotions have moved into the “healthy” range.
3. Practice good self-care. Self-care is immensely important to maintaining emotional wellness. Self-care includes:
- Positive self-talk. Practice self-compassion by talking to yourself in a supportive way—the way you would speak to a good friend experiencing the same issue.
- Getting the sleep you need. For most adults, this ranges between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. If you have difficulty sleeping, read some articles on good sleep habits, and make them part of your evening routine.
- Connecting with others. Good self-care includes spending time with supportive friends.
- Nutrition and exercise. Giving your body the nutrients and energy it needs will help the areas of your brain responsible for emotion regulation to function better.
- Leisure and recreation. Regularly spending time doing activities you find fun can help keep strong emotions at bay.
It’s perfectly normal to feel a range of emotions, and individuals vary in how strong or frequent their emotions are. But when negative feelings are too intense or linger too long, it may affect your health and relationships. By learning emotion regulation skills and practicing good self-care, you may begin to feel more joy and inner peace, and less anxiety, stress, sadness, and anger.
- Schore, A. N. (2011). Bowlby’s “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: Recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development. Human nature, early experience and the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, ed. D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore, and T. Gleason. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Seligowski, A. V., Lee, D. J., Bardeen, J. R., & Orcutt, H. K. (2015). Emotion regulation and posttraumatic stress symptoms: A meta-analysis. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 44(2), 87-102.
- Thompson, R. A., & Calkins, S. D. (1996). The double-edged sword: Emotional regulation for children at risk. Development and Psychopathology, 8(01), 163. doi:10.1017/s0954579400007021
- Thompson, R. A., Flood, M. F., & Lundquist, L. (1995). Emotional regulation: Its relations to attachment and developmental psychopathology. In Rochester symposium on developmental psychopathology: Emotion, cognition, and representation (Vol. 6, pp. 261-299).
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