How to Self-Regulate your Uncomfortable Feelings

Gillian May

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

I had terrible temper tantrums as a kid. I recall around three years old, I smashed a toy during one of my outbursts. I don’t recall what happened that led me to be banished to my room, but I do remember the rage and the feeling of abandonment. I had no ability to self-regulate my feelings. Of course, children do these things for sure, but when we reach adulthood, it’s not helpful to have temper tantrums.

In these times of turmoil, it can especially difficult to regulate our feelings and emotions. Stress is at an all-time high and many of us feel triggered and overwhelmed. But as adults, we need to get better at self-regulation so we can calm our stress levels and cope better.

I know I’ve had a few adult temper tantrums that have left me in a cloud of shame. I’ve also had moments of complete shut-down as well as times when I’ve been overwhelmed by other people’s feelings.

Over the past few years, I've worked through some deep emotional blocks and I realized that I had a dysfunctional relationship with my feelings. It’s taken time to find balance again, and even though it will never be perfect, I’m happy with my progress.

The number one thing that derails most of us is trauma.

The effects of trauma vary widely from person to person. Trauma, like pain, is a subjective and personal experience that should be respected and validated no matter what the circumstances are.

I know that trauma caused difficulties in my ability to identify, manage and cope with my feelings as well as others feelings. Experts say this is a prime symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sustaining trauma as an adult is hard enough, but when we’re young, it can alter our neurological development. This means we never learn how to properly regulate and understand our own feelings. We also don’t know how to manage the feeling states of others.

There are two experiences, in particular, that really trigger me to this day:

1. Not feeling heard/validated

2. A sudden and confusing change in other people’s feeling states.

I used to joke that I can detect people’s anger from across the room. But actually, this isn’t a joke. Growing up with a brother who had violent outbursts led me to develop extreme sensitivity and intuition about other people’s feelings. I also felt alone and that my feelings didn't matter. I was often told to be the "good girl" so I didn't add more drama to our family. So I became both highly intuitive and a people pleaser.

At the time, this helped me dodge situations that were too overwhelming for me. But now, it causes me overwhelming stress which can impact my health and my relationships.

On the upside, it’s a gift. It’s given me immense compassion. When others are sad and shedding tears, I can feel their pain, sit with them and shed tears as well. I’m a champion validator for all the wandering unheard, traumatized, and unvalidated souls. But it came at the cost of not learning how to speak up and regulate my own emotions.

When we can't feel and regulate our feelings in a healthy way, it's as if we've been taken hostage by their feelings sometimes.

Learning how to understand and regulate our emotions is a life-long task for many of us. There’s plenty of therapists that can help, and if we stay committed, we can get better at it. Thankfully, there’s a lot we can do on our own as well. I’d like to share three steps I took to help myself understand and navigate my feelings better.

Step One: Identifying Feeling Sensations.

No one knows our feelings better than ourselves. We’re the only ones who live, breathe, and navigate our feeling states. Also, we’re so different from each other in how we experience our feelings.

Learning about feeling sensations is an essential step in our emotional development. Many of us have been cut-off from our feelings due to trauma. Whereas others (like myself) have more of a chaotic relationship with our emotions.

We can get better at identifying our feeling sensations by taking time to lie still and do a body scan. Start at the feet and move slowly upwards to the top of your head. Just begin identifying the buzzing, whooshing, or pulsing of your body.

There may be places you feel this with more intensity like your hands, stomach or head. For me, I have intense energy pulsations in my hands, abdomen, upper and lower back. For you, it could be in your feet, neck or elsewhere. If you feel nothing at all, be patient, do this exercise every day for about ten minutes until you can detect something.

Step Two: Connect Feeling Sensations to Emotional States.

Continue doing your daily ten-minute body scans but begin to notice emotional states like sadness, fear, anger, disappointment, or grief. What do these emotional states feel like in your body? For me, grief feels like a bottomless hole in my chest. There’s a sensation of weight mixed with a sinking feeling like going down a steep hill fast.

It’s not enough to say “I’m angry.” We need to begin knowing what angry “feels” like. For me, anger begins with a pulsating in the seat of my pelvis, then it gets hotter and begins to move up my torso. My teeth clench, and my muscles tense up.

Again, this may take a while to learn but take your time and be kind to yourself. If you’re able, make a detailed list of what each emotional state feels like for you.

Step Three: Differentiate Emotional States From Reactions.

This is the hard part. Most of us confuse reactions with feelings, but they’re not the same. A temper tantrum is a reaction to many factors, including our feeling sensations and emotions. When we don’t understand our feelings, it can lead to intense reactions such as outbursts or more quiet reactions such as passive aggression.

And once we’re in a reactive state, it’s hard to know how we got there, especially for those of us who have complex trauma and PTSD. But instead of shaming ourselves for our reactions, we can use them to learn.

Make a list of recent reactions you’ve had, then begin tracing them back to their origins. You can even make a drawing if that feels right for you. Start from the reaction, then identify the emotional state, then go back to past situations that initiated those feeling sensations.

For example, you may have yelled at someone you love. You can then identify that anger was your emotional state. Then go back to the anger sensations you had in your body. Then, connect the current situation to whatever past situation it reminds you of. This will help you understand your triggers and the memories that fueled your anger.

Doing this will teach you so much about your feeling sensations, emotional states, and reactions.

An important thing to remember is that reactions, like crying or yelling, are not unhealthy.

It just depends on how we do it and where it takes us.

A temper tantrum directed at or affecting another person is destructive. But the expulsion of suppressed anger through screaming into a pillow or safely getting it out in therapy could be a significant healing breakthrough for you. Just be sure to find someone you trust who can guide you through this safely.

Practicing these three steps over the last few years has really helped me have more confidence in my ability to self-regulate.

These days, I'm more equipped to understand feelings like anger or sadness. Instead of reacting, I can use my words to express what I need or take action to protect my boundaries. It’s not perfect, I do fail sometimes, but we’re allowed to make mistakes as we fumble through life.

Comments / 1

Published by

I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


More from Gillian May

Comments / 0