How to Regulate Our Emotions 101
Updated: Sep 7
What emotions do you experience before taking part in activities that matter to you? How do you respond to these emotions? Do these responses work for you? Professional athletes regularly experience emotions of anxiety and nerves before competition. Many choose to see this as a sign that they are ready to compete, and that the competition matters to them. This response allows for them to move forward amidst these emotions with confidence and excitement, instead of doubt and fear.
Managing and regulating emotions is a key area within sport psychology. At the SPRINT Project, we have been carrying out research to look at how athletes manage their emotions in order to improve their performance and wellbeing. However, it is important that we recognize that all of us can benefit from managing our emotions: not just athletes! In this blog, we share tools which can help us become more aware of our emotions, and also regulate our emotions to improve our performance and well-being, both in sport and everyday life.
The importance of emotions
Emotions play a big role in all of our lives, and affect us in many ways. They can both energize and deflate us. But, if we don’t know how to manage them in healthy and positive ways, it can negatively impact our physical and mental health, our relationships, and performance in school, sport, or work. This is done through what we call emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation involves having control over how we feel and how we respond to those feelings using mental skills. There may be times when feeling a certain emotion may not be helpful, and can hold us back. Emotional regulation helps us to choose an effective way of expressing the challenging emotion. While altering or changing the emotion may sometimes be the best option, there are times when accepting the emotion without judgment might be more suitable.
There are many benefits to emotional regulation. Some of these include:
· We are able to gain control of our emotions instead of letting our emotions control us
· Being better able to self-reflect and identify what emotions are helping vs. hurting
· It can buffer against the negative effects of strong emotions
· It boosts our self-confidence and self-worth, while increasing our mental well-being
· Being better able to understand the emotions being experienced by others, improving your social awareness and how comfortable you feel socially.
The first step to improving emotional regulation is gaining better awareness of your different emotions and understanding how these affect your thoughts and behaviours.
Emotional awareness is a skill that will improve with practice. To help you do this, we’ve created a free interactive tool called the Emotional Awareness Grid, which can be done on your own but is also a great group exercise for conveying that it is normal to experience a range of emotions.
Emotional Awareness Grid
To use the tool, start by brainstorming different emotions you experience. Think about different situations, like lining up to take a penalty when playing football, sitting down to take an exam or walking into a job interview, and ask yourself how your emotions change from one situation to another? How did you respond to these situations?
You will probably notice that your emotions don’t always stay the same, but change depending on the situation. Even the best athletes experience a range of emotions requiring them to use emotional regulation in order to benefit their performance. Examples include excitement, stress and pressure. For an elite athlete, who may feel stress before a big competition, regulating their emotions could mean the difference between taking the stress and using it to fuel their performance, or being overcome by the stress and performing poorly.
Emotions can also vary by intensity and comfort. We consider these as two different continuums, which can be broken down into high vs. low intensity, and comfortable vs. uncomfortable. This gives us 4 different types of emotions that we describe using the colours orange, yellow, blue and green. See examples of all four types in the grid below.
Once we have become more aware of our emotions, we can start to focus on how we plan to manage them in a healthy way. For example, perhaps we feel intense anger, but through regulating, we can turn this into being upset, which is less intense. Then, over time, we can maybe move across the grid to becoming calm, which is still low intensity, but more comfortable.
An effective technique for doing this is reappraisal.
Reappraisal refers to viewing a situation in a different way to help manage the situation. For example, an athlete may interpret the buzz and nerves they experience before a performance as motivational energy, as opposed to stress or pressure. Reappraisal allows athletes to alter the focus of their thoughts in ways that will be beneficial to their performance, and as such, is an important applied technique to manage emotions.
Emotional regulation is for everybody
It’s important to remember that although we have discussed emotional regulation in relation to research in sport, that it is a beneficial technique for all of us! By applying a skill like reappraisal, we can gain control over our emotions and improve our mental wellbeing and resilience.
Our top tips for emotional regulation are:
· Find things that help to alter your mood (e.g. listening to music, exercising)
· Practise positive self-talk to make sure the thoughts you have are helpful. Having skills to regulate emotions are particularly important for young people. We recently ran a guest feature on the emotional fitness app, Fika, which provides activities for young people to put themselves through an emotional ‘workout’.
· Reframe or reappraise a situation to see it in a different way
· Use mental imagery to image yourself as feeling positive and achieving success – we recently wrote a blog post on this which you can check out here.
· Learn from others who successfully do this. This may be a friend of yours, or your favourite sports person
Photo credit: bridget & thanasorn janekankit on Reshot