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How to Regulate Your Emotions to Manage Anxiety

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Extract of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion by Dr. Wendy Suzuki with permission from Atria. Copyright © 2022 by Wendy Suzuki, PhD.

The stress that causes anxiety doesn’t go away, but we do have the ability to “optimize” our response. Researchers, including Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum, have shown that it is possible to approach stress as a challenge and an opportunity for performance and growth.

At the neurobiological level, what Crum and others suggest is part of a larger area of ​​brain research and framing known as emotion regulation – the processes that help us manage all emotional responses, especially anxiety.

What does emotion regulation mean?

An expert in emotion regulation, James J. Gross, another professor of psychology at Stanford University, defines emotion regulation as “the processes by which individuals influence the emotions they have, when they have them, and how they feel and express them”. He also points out that regulation is a set of processes that exist on a “continuum from conscious, effortful, controlled regulation to unconscious, effortless, automatic regulation”.

What does this mean in practice? The bottom line is this: Thought Anxiety can come from some form of attention-seeking cue to avoid danger, it doesn’t have to cause discomfort, distraction, or otherwise interfere with our natural desire for well-being and balance. We can learn to use awareness to reframe a situation, remove the perception of danger, and reevaluate it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge and create new responses. We have several options for dealing with both cue attention and anxiety (feelings), and if it gets to that point, the response itself. Our brain is a wonderful thing!

[Related: Stress and anxiety wear down your brain. Here’s how to fight back.]

Our brain-body systems are in constant motion toward homeostasis, that state of balance between excitement and relaxation. Each system, from the nervous system to the digestive system, interacts and exchanges signals in order to respond to a stressor and then regain homeostasis. This is also true of our emotional system. Our negative emotions arise to bring our attention to something that may be dangerous and then make some kind of change or adaptation to feel better. In other words, they have a positive purpose. It’s the same with anxiety: it’s the brain-body’s way of telling us to pay attention. Our built-in system of dealing with our negative emotions, processing, responding to, and dealing with negative emotions in particular, so that we can maintain or return to homeostasis is called emotion regulation.

How to Regulate Emotions

Anxiety is a set of emotions that interfere with our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally. And they are meant to, because they are meant to draw our attention to an area where all is not as it should be. However, our ability to regulate our emotions is not always predictable. Indeed, the degree of a person’s ability to regulate emotions varies depending on a number of factors: how we were raised, our lifestyle and even our genetic profile. The good news is that we can learn to regulate our emotions more effectively. According to Gross’ Emotion Regulation Model, we have five types of anxiety management strategies that can help manage anxiety and other negative emotions. These are situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation. The first four can interrupt anxiety before it turns into an extreme or chronic state. The fifth is a regulation technique after the anxiety (or other negative emotion) has occurred.

Let’s look at how emotion regulation plays out in real life. Say you’re anticipating an important job interview after being fired from your old job six months ago. You feel pressure, you doubt yourself and you are afraid – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough. The interview is in four days, but you’re already feeling nervous. When you even imagine walking through the door of the building, your hands start to sweat, your heart races, and your breathing becomes just a little shallow. Then you start imagining all the things that could go wrong: you might forget to bring your resume, you might be wearing mismatched socks, or you might forget everything you know about why you’re applying for the job in the first place. .

Selection of situations

One option is to avoid a situation that you think will bother you or heighten your anxiety. Avoiding the situation (skipping the job interview) can alleviate short-term fear and stress; however, this clearly won’t help you if, in the long run, you want or need the job in question. Gross calls this strategy situation selection.

Status change

Another option is to modify the current situation so that the anticipation or anxiety is made more tolerable or bearable. For example, if you are feeling anxious about the current interview, you can modify the situation by asking to do the interview over the phone or by videoconference. This allows you to exert some control over your anxiety and makes you more responsible for feeling that it is bigger than you. Gross calls this change of situation. I call it a shift from bad to good anxiety. Your nervousness has not disappeared; it is simply under your control and channeled.

Deployment of attention

A third option is called attention deployment, which includes several ways to divert your attention from the anxiety-provoking situation to something else that is absorbing your attention. Parents frequently use this technique with their infants and toddlers. If the young child is afraid of dogs, for example, a parent might direct the child’s attention to a funny face while the scary dog ​​walks away. It’s kind of an intentional distraction.

[Related: How to keep your anxiety from spiraling out of control]

Cognitive change

The fourth and probably the most sophisticated emotion regulation strategy is called cognitive change. In this case, you are actively and consciously reassessing or reframing your mindset or attitude: instead of viewing the job interview as a horrible way to spend your Friday morning, you reframe it as an opportunity to show yourself, as well as to your potential employer, everything you know • about the role and the company or organization; it also boosts your confidence. The reframing acts as a mental suggestion that reshapes the feeling of anxiety from one of dread and overwhelming to one of excitement and challenge.

Modulation of response

Once you’ve made it through the front door and sat down for the interview, the anxiety may show up despite the strategies you’ve used to mitigate it thus far. In this case, you are actively trying to suppress or lessen the anxious feelings. Maybe you can do some breathing (ie deep breathing, which is one of the fastest and most effective ways to calm the whole nervous system) or drink some water. If it wasn’t a job interview that turned you on, but a date, you could have a beer or a glass of wine to relax. These are just a few of the many coping strategies you can use after feeling anxious.

You can learn to manage your anxiety

Current research on the interplay between anxiety and emotion regulation indicates that interventional strategies such as reappraisal can enhance emotion regulation capacity and positively affect anxiety; These studies were done in the context of anxiety disorders. Specifically, neuroimaging studies have shown that negative emotions of anxiety or fear are less in response to emotion regulation strategies. Additionally, neuroimaging studies have also shown that negative emotions of anxiety or fear occur in different neural regions of the brain from which emotion regulation occurs. This area of ​​research is in its infancy, but the good news is that we can update our emotional responses. We can learn to regulate emotionally. We can better manage and then channel our anxiety.

I like to think of this approach to anxiety as a way to build our resilience to stress. Consider this: we need to both feel the feelings and update our responses to those feelings. It starts with awareness. Once you realize you are uncomfortable with any sign of anxiety, you need to stop and think about what you are doing with the feelings. We all need constant practice, just sitting with our feelings and not trying to mask, deny, escape or immediately distract ourselves. By sitting with the discomfort, you do two things: you get used to the feeling and realize that you can indeed “survive it”, and you give yourself time and space in your brain to make a better decision. aware of how to act or react. . . This is exactly how a new, more positive neural pathway is established.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki is an award-winning professor of neural science and psychology at New York University’s Center for Neural Science and is the Seryl Kushner Dean of NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences. She is a recognized international authority on neuroplasticity, was recently named one of the top 10 women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping, and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Shapeand Health. His TED talk has over 55 million views. She is the author of good anxiety and Healthy brain, happy life.

Buy Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion here.

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