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Understanding Emotional Regulation and Gratitude

By Carol Abraham

During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, it is important to recognize that as humans, we are wired to survive. Our senses help us take in information all around us, allowing us to navigate our environment and adapt in order to survive. But another crucial way we have learned to survive our environment is through tuning into our emotions.

Emotions are part of our survival system and each one has a “call to action” – even the ones we perceive to be negative such as anxiety, stress, or sadness. The word "emotion" comes from the Latin root word that means "to move," as pointed out by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence. Therefore, by recognizing the importance of our emotions in navigating our surroundings, we can better understand their significance and how they can help us pay attention to things that matter. Ultimately, our emotions can serve as an essential tool in alerting us to potential opportunities or danger.

Learning to listen to our internal world and recognize our internal feelings can help us decide on what action should be taken depending on the circumstances we face.  These are skills that need to be practiced every day.  We begin with understanding the importance of emotional regulation. By improving our ability to regulate our emotions, we can improve our outcomes. This can be achieved by learning to tune in to our emotions and identify what we are feeling below the surface.

In a recent article for Psychology Today, Dr. Gordon Livingston, M.D., discusses how anger is a secondary emotion that often masks underlying feelings bubbling below the surface, such as stress, fear, or sadness.  He says that many times, it’s easier to express anger because expressing it may be easier than acknowledging other emotions we choose to hide because they make us feel vulnerable. If we learn to identify what’s below the surface of anger or agitation, we can better identify and resolve the real problem. A starting point is to begin by recognizing what emotion we are experiencing when we are triggered. Ask yourself: “What’s behind the anger?” Is it stress, fear, pain, and/or sadness? Use each triggering moment as an opportunity to build the skill of emotional regulation.  Take time to reflect the emotions experienced and identify what's really going on beneath the surface.

Managing our internal world can help us better choose our responses so that they are productive rather than destructive.  In addition, Goleman says in his book that better management of our internal world can help us improve brain power because our circuits are not being utilized for a threat that can cloud judgement and miss opportunities to resolve issues. For example, when we are stressed, we are generally easily agitated and more likely to get aggravated with those around us.  Once we stop and recognize that stress is leading us to go off the rails, we can take proper and productive action. This can be anything from identifying how we can better maintain a work-life balance and/or implement self-care practices. Once we improve our ability to differentiate between the array of emotions we experience (e.g., anger, pain, and stress) we can then choose appropriate strategies for better outcomes.

One self-care strategy that can help ground us daily is the practice of gratitude.  Studies have been conducted on the benefits of gratitude and well-being.  Results demonstrate that being grateful can have a positive impact on our contentment and emotional management. In his book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, author Shawn Achor says that grateful people tend to handle negative emotions better than those who ruminate and get stuck in negativity. Achor says this is because when we close ourselves off from finding potential solutions and opportunities, we can create more problems.

As with anything, gratitude is a skill that takes daily practice.  Taking time every day to find a few things to be grateful for, regardless of how small can be powerful.  Taking inventory of the good things in our life can help balance a skewed negative perception so that we see a more balanced life and improve our mental health.  We can stop seeing things as “it’s all bad” and pivot to “only some things are bad” because we are making time to remember the important things in our life.  This practice, Achor says, trains our brain to see the world in a more balanced way rather than solely focusing on what’s not going well.  For example, “my job is tough” is reframed to capture “I am grateful to have my social support system to get me through the tough times.”

Mental Health Awareness Month reminds us that it is important to remember that emotions are a crucial part of our survival system. Learning to tune into them and identify what we are feeling can help us make better decisions and take productive action. Practicing emotional regulation and gratitude can also help us maintain a healthy state of mind. By prioritizing mental health and wellness, we can create a world where everyone has the tools to navigate life’s challenges and thrive.

Carol Abraham is an adjunct associate professor of psychology and senior academic program coordinator at University of Maryland Global Campus.