S2E25 Emotion Regulation

Emotions evolved to give us information, but what happens when they become more intense than evolution intended them to be? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete discuss emotion regulation, including reasons why emotions become dysregulated and ways to work on regulating or mitigating their intensity. And no surprise here—mindful practices are often the way to doing so. Tune in to learn more.




Nikki: We all have emotions, we all know what it feels like when emotions are pleasant, emotions are unpleasant. And we probably all know what it feels like when emotions become what we call dysregulated, Pete. So hi, how are you? We're going to talk about emotion regulation today. So hoping to come back to a place that feel a little bit more manageable.

Pete: Because everybody feels.

Nikki: Everybody feels.

Pete: But sometimes we don't want to feel.

Nikki: Well, isn't that the truth? And also, isn't that the problem, and what happens? So Pete and I talk a lot about emotion regulation and emotion dysregulation on this podcast, and we really realized it needs its own episode, we got to define it a little bit.

Pete: Let's define it.

Nikki: Yeah, let's define it. So, let's start with talking about what emotion dysregulation. So actually, Pete, I'm going to ask you, do you mind telling our listeners a little bit about like, what that definition is? Because, most people that aren't in therapy don't hear that term, emotion dysregulation.

Pete: Well, let's just like really quick, I know we have done this on previous episodes, but just six basic emotions. So fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise. Anybody who's ever seen the Pixar film inside out…

Nikki: The best,

Pete: Recognizes those emotions and those characters, and we all experience, those are primary emotions. There are also secondary emotions, which are a little bit more evolved or involved or…

Nikki: Or nuanced,

Pete: Nuanced or complicated, that's the human experience...

Nikki: Embarrassment as an example, shame, which is similar. But then we can also say, I don't know, there's ones like, interest is sometimes is arguably a primary emotion. But I don't know, even like curiosity.

Pete: Exactly, so just a little bit more nuanced, like you said. So the regulation of it is that it's sort of like with anger, we all have anger, even as a mindful Practitioner with a meditation practice, we have anger.

Nikki: So say what is dysregulated emotion? What does it mean if we feel dysregulated?

Pete: You didn’t let me finish. You thought I was getting there.

Nikki: I thought you were going right for regulation. I was like, “I mean,”

Pete: You want dysregulated.

Nikki: Yeah, I want to start with a dysregulation,

Pete: Dysregulation is punching the wall with the anger.

Nikki: Or throwing something,

Pete: Or throwing something, yeah. Because that…

Nikki: Seeing red,

Pete: Seeing red, and seeing red might be neurological, because based on this anger, there is research that supports that some trauma response to trauma, the brain might just see red. What we're saying here is dysregulation is acting in a way that's unhealthy, unproductive, based on and allowing, and one of the things I often say is my emotion hijack my behavior.

Nikki: Totally. So it's like, yes, and I think that's such an important start, because it's really getting at when our emotions are that intense, it's going to start to have an impact on like, what we do and what we think. And, so yes, when someone is dysregulated, from an anger standpoint, they're going to engage in behaviors that, I'll use this phrase, are going to feel or seem out of control. Though, I also think it's important to really clear that, because sometimes people don't have any sort of external behaviors that you might notice. That dysregulated emotion also really refers to basically, emotions becoming more intense than, number one, than the situation calls for, which I can just define in a moment.

Pete: Please do.

Nikki: Yes, I will, and also becoming so intense that they impact one's functioning. And so everybody can feel dysregulated at times, because, the brain is not a perfect organ as we well know.

Pete: There you go, talking stuff about the brain again.

Nikki: Yeah, that's our good friend here. It's just I want to just acknowledge its limitations. But, sometimes people really struggle with emotion dysregulation. And when emotions are more intense than the situation calls for, really what that means is like, okay, so, like Pete was just saying, we all have emotions, and we all have anger, we all feel anxiety, we all feel sadness. If you feel anger when, I don't know, let's say someone stole your wallet, and you felt angry about that. Okay, like that's a normal healthy response. Like it's saying, because anger checklists for all emotions, are giving us information. That's why they evolved from an evolutionary perspective. So anger tells us that we're being threatened in some way or our loved ones being threatened in some way. So in a modern world, even like having your wallet stolen, that's like there's like a threat to your safety, so to speak in some way. So being angry is a normal response. Dysregulated anger would be that you start to feel it so intensely, your heart rate is increasing, you're sweating, you're shouting, you're throwing, in our being more extreme here, like you're throwing things, it's sucks if you got your wallet stolen, being mad is a normal response, but that the intensity of the emotion that I was just describing, is larger than the situation.

Pete: Because that emotional response doesn't bring back your wallet,

Nikki: It doesn't bring back your wallet. And as Pete was saying, it starts to have an ineffective impact on your behavior. And then you can start to number one, do things that are going to have consequences, for example, like throwing things or yelling at somebody, but also, the anger is going to remain heightened, which can then, it's not very pleasant, number one, but then it can put you at risk to start to feel other trigger, other emotions. So, dysregulated emotion is really, like I said, it's experiencing an intensity of an emotion larger than what the situation calls for. And then again, like I was saying, can start to have an impact on your behavior. Anything you'd add to that Pete?

Pete: Well, I'm wondering how you see it clinically, because I think I remember like, when my office manager first started, she got a couple of calls or something and like, “I want to work on anger management”. And she was like, she would call me like in a frenzy, like, “Oh, I don't think this is the right person for us, anger management”, it's like they’ve seen the movie ‘Anger Management' or something and think that the person is going to be like, psychotic or serial killer. And it's like, no, it's like that's actually a really insightful person to be able to call and say, ‘hey, I want to work on my anger'.

Nikki: Totally. Well, I think, in terms of clinically, it's like, look, I would say, everybody that's coming to see me is struggling with emotion dysregulation in some way. Because again, it just basically means that the emotion is bigger than what is manageable. And there are different reasons for that, like, I think maybe it's important to acknowledge that some people are hardwired to be more likely to experience emotion dysregulation, somebody with like a biological mood disorder, like major depressive disorder, they're more, just again their wiring, or somebody with an anxiety disorder. I always tell people, like everyone's brains wired a little bit some way, some people are wired to actually not connect with emotion that much, or they're wired towards, like being very logic oriented. People that are very, like empathically wired, they tend to be more, like sometimes you'll see people, like highly sensitive person is sort of like a term that's out there. That really refers to somebody's brain that's just more likely to experience emotion more intensely. And it's again, it's not a bad thing, this isn't a judgment, there are adaptive parts to it. But yeah, everybody that I see is struggling with emotion dysregulation regulation in some way, and that's why they're coming to see us, it's like so they can learn to regulate.

Pete: Yeah. And so maybe we'll talk about ways to regulate.

Nikki: Let's do it, yeah. Well, so I'm going to toss that over to you, Pete. So what are some of the strategies that help folks regulate emotion, and again, I want to be really clear regulate doesn't mean, this is so important,

Pete: So important.

Nikki: It doesn't mean get rid of the emotion or not have emotion, which is what most people want. They'll come and go in like, “my goal for therapy is to not be anxious anymore”. I'm like, “Oh, we got to adapt that, you're still going to be anxious”,

Pete: We’re literally the same person.

Nikki: We are, “but we can work on regulating your anxiety so it's not impacting your life in such a difficult way”.

Pete: I know, because people come in, they'll be like, “I have anxiety”, like why they come back, “I'm coming because I have anxiety”. I'm like, “good”. And they look at me, they're like, what you mean?” I'm like, “well, because it means you're alive”.

Nikki: Yeah, that's right.

Pete: It's a basic thing to have. So how do you do this? I mean, as we have said, here, all roads lead to mindfulness.

Nikki: Knew that's where you're going to go.

Pete: And it's because the mindfulness practices will help to change and strengthen our amygdala, and so some of our response centers within our brain can actually change through our mindfulness practice. So, thinking before we speak, that's something we could do in mindfulness. But there are other behavioral techniques. So that could be like asking open ended questions, really listening, so active listening with somebody. I don't think there's any better practice for growth emotionally or psychologically, than listening and asking questions while angry and perhaps even to someone that you dislike.

Nikki: Totally, I mean, absolutely.

Pete: No, hold on. That's hard.

Nikki: Well, right. And I think actually, it is very hard and actually, I think that what Pete's really talking about are a little bit, I'm going to say the [inaudible 10:03], those are a little bit more advanced techniques…

Pete: Yeah, totally.

Nikki: Once somebody has more skill in regulating emotion that's actually very difficult to slow down and listen and ask questions if you're dysregulated. Because, again, as we were saying, a moment ago, when our emotions are that intense, we don't 100% lose control of our behavior, but it can be very difficult to control, or to do the thing that works more effectively. So if we come back to what Pete’s saying about mindfulness, so the research is really clear that when you practice mindfulness, so this both of formal sitting meditation, or informally just coming back to paying attention to and experiencing the moment, including the emotion that you're feeling at any given time, that grows neurons in parts of the brain, that help us regulate emotions, so it's like growing muscle, in your biceps, if you're doing bicep curls, so that you can lift heavier stuff. So if you're in a situation where someone is pissing you off, if you got more neurons in the area that helps you regulate anger, it's not going to get so intense that you lose behavioral control. Related to that, I think it's important to say, there's a discussion a lot in behavioral therapies where we talk about emotional exposure. And we've talked about exposure before on this podcast. Mindfulness is like the original exposure, because it's really just contacting the moment. And we've done that with anxiety disorders for like, 50 years, but it's true of literally any emotion. So I want to say, tell me if you know, this research, Pete, I think there's research that says something like on average, [inaudible 11:40] , every emotion that's like, on average, if somebody is willing to contact an emotion, like they let themselves feel the emotion in the moment, in a mindful way, the emotion tends to, like the most intense part or something, passes, I think it's in 90 seconds, I think, is what I was taught.

Pete: Yeah, that would sound about right to me, I don't know for sure. But absolutely, I mean, anyone could practice that, because you really can't, like we do for panic, you can't stay in a panic state for a very long time. And so, what I will, I’ll just weave in some of the Eastern stuff,

Nikki: Yeah, please.

Pete: And we talk a lot, when I bring in some of the Buddhist stuff, we talk a lot about translation. And that's what's coming to mind to me with this, because a lot of Buddhist teachings will call or label emotions, like attachment or jealousy as poisons. And I think that that's really critical. Because again, the practice is really, like that first noble truth is that we all suffer. So then the second is like releasing attachment, eliminate suffering. And so that's the thing I see the most, and when I'm working as, and I think that's why I went to the advanced, way around this idea of emotion regulation, because when I'm working with like high performers, I can really go to that of like, ‘what is that emotion about?’ ‘Or when you were dysregulated.’ And that's okay, non judgmentally, that's okay, that you got to that state. ‘What was it about, what did you learned from it?’ Because what we're trying to do is like, diffuse from the attachment of that moment, or the judgment that we placed upon it, because really, the main teachings are within Buddhism is that emotions are fundamental. And actually, they're seen as a big driver behind basic intelligence and creative energy.

Nikki: I mean, it's lovely to hear, because it's also, that just so aligns with, again, from a Western scientific lens, that's what you're saying, emotions are, they're absolutely foundational in terms, even where they are, like, think of like, parts of the brain. It's very deep in the brain, which, the brain evolves over itself, that we needed them for survival, that gave us information, still does, before we had language.

Pete: That's right. Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. Well, and I think, we can add in just one other piece here, in terms of the eastern part, is that there's also it's important to say, in mindfulness, there's this concept of ‘cling to nothing, push away nothing'. It's like just be with what is happening in the moment. And we know that when we push away emotion, we suppress it, we try not to experience it, or we dive into it, ruminate on it, we over focus on it, both of those behaviors create emotion dysregulation. And so, people want to like be in their emotions too much, or they want to go like, ‘I don't want to feel it, I'm afraid of what's going to happen'. And either of those behaviors are going to cause emotion dysregulation. So if listeners can take one thing away from this episode today, is that if you allow yourself to experience the emotion as it's happening without judging it, just let it be even if it's really uncomfortable, or really comfortable. So as we get attached to things like infatuation or joy, it's not going to balloon out of control. It's not going to get so intense that you have trouble accessing helpful behaviors. And in fact, it's going to be able to just pass like a wave more quickly. So, listeners when you feel emotions today go ahead and try, can you can you ride the wave and be willing to just see what waves are coming and allow those to happen to.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors, Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.