How do you regulate your emotions to manage anxiety?

quotation: Good Anxiety: Using the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion Courtesy of Atria. by Wendy Suzuki. Copyright © 2022, Wendy Suzuki, PhD.

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

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

What does emotion regulation mean?

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

What does this mean in practice? The bottom line is this: While anxiety may appear as a kind of attention-grabbing signal to avoid danger, it need not necessarily cause discomfort, distraction, or otherwise interfere with our natural urge for well-being and balance. We can learn to use mindfulness to reframe a situation, remove the perception of danger, and re-evaluate it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge and create new responses. We have multiple options for managing both the attention to the signal and the anxiety (emotions) and, if it gets to that point, the reaction 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 towards homeostasis, the state of balance between arousal and relaxation. Every system, from the nervous system to the digestive system, interacts and exchanges signals to respond to a stressor and then regain homeostasis. This also applies to our emotional system. Our negative emotions arise to draw our attention to something that could be dangerous, and then some sort of change or adjustment to make ourselves feel better. In other words, it has a positive purpose. It’s the same with anxiety: it’s the brain-body’s way of telling us to pay attention. Our inbuilt system for managing our negative emotions, especially processing, responding to, and coping with negative emotions, so that we can maintain or return to balance is called emotion regulation.

How emotions are regulated

Anxiety is a bundle of emotions that overwhelms our ability to regulate emotionally. And they mean it because they aim to draw our attention to an area where not everything is as it should be. However, our ability to regulate our emotions is not always predictable. In fact, the degree of a person’s capacity for emotion regulation varies depending on a number of factors, such as how we were brought up, our lifestyle, and even our genetic profile. The good news is that we can learn to regulate our emotions more effectively. According to Gross’ model of emotion regulation, we have five types of anxiety management strategies that can help manage anxiety and other negative emotions. These; situation selection, situation change, distraction, cognitive change, and response modulation. The first four can cut anxiety before it escalates into an extreme state or a chronic one. Fifth, it is a regulation technique applied after anxiety (or other negative emotion) has occurred.

Let’s look at how emotion regulation plays out in real life. Let’s say you’re waiting for an important job interview after you left your old position six months ago. You feel pressure, self-doubt and fear – fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of not being measured. It’s four days until the meeting, but you’re already feeling nervous. Even when you imagine walking through the door of the building, your hands begin to sweat, your heart begins to pound, and your breathing becomes a little shallow. Then you start imagining every possible thing that could go wrong: you might forget to bring your resume, you might wear mismatched socks, or you might forget everything you knew about why you applied for the job in the first place.

Status selection

One option is to avoid a situation that you think will make you uncomfortable or exacerbate your anxiety. Avoiding the situation (skipping the job interview) can reduce fear and stress in the near term; however, it is clear that this will not help you if you want or need that job in the long run. Gross calls this strategy case selection.

Status change

Another option is to change the current situation in a way that makes the expectation or anxiety more bearable or bearable. For example, if you are worried about the call waiting, you can change the situation by asking to hold the call by phone or video conference. 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 a change. I call this the transition from bad anxiety to good anxiety. Your tension has not disappeared; it is under your control and directed only.


A third option is called distraction, which involves several ways to divert your attention from the worrying situation to something else that attracts your attention. Parents often use this technique with their babies and toddlers. For example, if the young child is afraid of dogs, a parent might shift the child’s focus to a funny face as the scary dog ​​moves away. This is a kind of deliberate distraction.

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

cognitive change

The fourth and possibly the most complex of emotion regulation strategies is called cognitive change. In this case, you’re actively and consciously re-evaluating or reframing your mindset or attitude: instead of thinking of the job interview as a terrible way to spend your Friday morning, you reframe it as an opportunity to show yourself and your potential employer how much you know. about the role and company or organization; It also improves your self-confidence. The reframe acts as a mental suggestion that reshapes the feeling of anxiety from feeling fear and overwhelmed to feeling excited and challenged.

response modulation

Once you’ve managed to get yourself through the front door and seated in the interview, anxiety is likely to set in despite the strategies you’ve used so far to alleviate it. In this case, you are actively trying to suppress or alleviate anxious feelings. Maybe you do some breathing work (for example, deep breathing, which is one of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the entire nervous system) or drink some water. If it was a date and not a job interview that got you excited, you could have a beer or a glass of wine to quench your excitement. These are just a few of the many coping strategies you can use after experiencing anxiety.

You can learn to manage your anxiety

Current research on the interaction between anxiety and emotion regulation points to strong evidence that interventional strategies such as reappraisal can improve one’s emotion regulation capacity and positively affect anxiety; these studies were conducted in the context of anxiety disorders. Specifically, neuroimaging studies have shown that negative feelings of anxiety or fear are reduced in response to emotion regulation strategies. Moreover, neuroimaging studies have also shown that negative emotions such as anxiety or fear occur in different neural regions of the brain where emotion regulation occurs. This area of ​​research is in its infancy, but the good news is: We can update our emotional responses. We can learn to regulate emotionally. We can become better at managing and then channeling 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 emotions and update our response to those emotions. It starts with awareness. When you notice that you are bothered by any of the signs of anxiety, you need to stop and think about what you are doing with those feelings. We all need to constantly just sit with our emotions and not immediately try to mask, deny, escape, or distract ourselves. By sitting comfortably, you do two things: you get used to the feeling and realize that you can truly “survive”, and you give yourself time and space in your brain to make a more informed decision about 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 the Center for Neuroscience at New York University and Seryl Kushner dean of the NYU College of Arts and Sciences. She is a renowned international authority on neuroplasticity, recently named by Good Housekeeping as one of the top 10 women to change the way we see the world, and serves as a regularly sought-after expert. The Wall Street Gazette, Shapeand Health. His TED talk has been viewed more than 55 million times. he is the author Good Anxiety and Healthy Brain, Happy Life.

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