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How Do I Regulate My Emotions?

Zoe Mittman, LSW

You might have heard the term “self-regulation” before, but wondered, what does this really mean or look like? Self-regulation is the ability to control and manage your behaviors, feelings, and emotions. That being said, it is particularly important to have a toolbox of self-regulation skills to utilize when you feel like your body is feeling “out of control.” This could present as thoughts racing in your mind, experiencing physiological symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, sweaty hands, or stomach ache), and so much more. 

In this blog, I am going to provide you with several strategies that can be used to help calm yourself down or help a loved one calm down. With that in mind, you may benefit from contacting a therapist in Chicago to learn more about regulation strategies. A counselor can help tailor them to your specific needs, and help identify where this lack of control may be stemming from. Prior to discussing regulation strategies, I am going to talk a bit about the mind-body connection.

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Our emotions are controlled by the part of the brain called the limbic system. When our limbic system senses danger, it may cause us to take action or lack thereof. This part of the brain is like a smoke alarm. In real life, if a smoke alarm goes off when smoke is present, it prompts us to take immediate action and leave the building. On the flip side, if a smoke alarm goes off often, you may either constantly start to leave your apartment, take the batteries out, or simply do nothing. In the case where there was immediate danger, you then may not react in a beneficial way. 

The reaction to your smoke detector is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. You may be wondering, why did I just go so in-depth about a smoke detector? The reason is, your smoke detector, which is like the emotional part of the brain, may be on high alert, ultimately causing an increase in anxiety, fear, panic, or anger. When the emotional part of your brain is in control, you may lack the ability to think and respond rationally. Self-regulation turns on the prefrontal cortex, aka the logical, thinking part of the brain.

So, How Do You Self-Regulate?

Start out by simply noticing or labeling your thoughts or feelings. For example, say out loud, “I notice I feel angry right now.” The time you take to observe your own emotions and/or thoughts turns on your prefrontal cortex, even if it is just for a few milliseconds. 

After noticing and labeling your thoughts, I encourage you to test out one or several of the following strategies:

  1. The butterfly tapping technique. Put your hands on your chest in the shape of a butterfly (right hand on the left side, left hand on the right side). Start tapping your chest back and forth. This movement looks like butterfly wings. As you’re tapping, start taking deep breaths. This technique draws attention to the mind-body connection, and the unilateral movement helps to calm down your body.
  2. Hold a cold object or touch a cold window. When your body touches something cold, your attention solely goes to that cold feeling. Have you ever held an ice cube or touched snow? It is just like that. This brings your attention back to the present moment.
  3. Go for a walk outside. Fresh air is such a great regulation technique. On your walk away from wherever you currently are, think about everything that is bothering you. The walk home is the time to clear your mind. Focus on new things that you see around you. A building, a tree, or flowers. The walk home is your time to decompress. 
  4. The 54321 technique. We form memories based on our five senses, so it would make sense that we can come back to the present moment by utilizing our five senses. This can be done in any order. What are five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste?
  5. Listen to music. I encourage you to make a playlist of songs you enjoy, so it is easily accessible to just click on the playlist when needed. 

We develop self-regulation skills at a very young age. They are impacted by our environment, adults in our lives, and biological factors. It does take time and effort to implement self-regulation strategies and it might even take a bit of unlearning from our childhood experiences. I wish you the best of luck in testing out these self-regulation strategies! If you have any questions or want to learn more about self-regulation strategies, get in touch with Symmetry Counseling to talk to a therapist in Chicago or online. We are here to help!


Tottenham, N. (18 July 2017). The brain’s emotional development. Cerebrum Dana Foundation.

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