Today, we are completing our series on executive functioning (EF) skills. This final article focuses on the EF skill of emotional control.
What does “emotional control” mean?
Emotional control is the ability to manage and control your emotions in order to achieve a goal or complete a task. It’s the ability to stay calm if you’re anxious or bounce back from a setback without letting disappointment or frustration take over. These feelings are normal and shouldn’t be suppressed, but controlled. Emotional control, then, is all about how you respond to and control your feelings.
People who struggle with emotional control might experience quick changes in their emotions, feel self-conscious, or let a setback ruin their entire day. People who worry constantly are likely to struggle with emotional self-control. Again, having emotional control does not mean that you completely lack emotions or that you are always happy and positive. It is the ability to handle disruptive emotions and impulses to stay in control of your actions and decisions.
Disruptive emotions are any feelings you experience that interrupt your routine or ability to accomplish something. They are commonly negative, like worry, fear, anger, resentment, or sadness. However, disruptive emotions can also be positive, like excitement or anticipation. Think of the child who can’t sleep the night before Christmas because they’re just too excited. This feeling, though positive, prevents the child from getting the sleep they need to stay healthy. Regardless of the feeling, disruptive emotions can take over; having emotional control helps keep them in check.
Emotional control is also closely linked to self-control. Self-control refers more to physical control and staying focused, while emotional control is based on feelings and emotions. Losing control in any form will negatively impact yourself, your relationships, and your reputation.
Why is emotional control important?
There are some pretty obvious reasons why maintaining control over your emotions is an important skill. Think about it: Being known as a “loose cannon” among your friends, professors, or employers will not end well for you. Losing control of your emotions can negatively impact your reputation and relationships. As a result, your own happiness will suffer.
The inability to handle negative or stressful emotions may cause you to become ineffective at school or work. When you are in an emotional crisis, your brain can focus on little else, especially homework, assignments, or any other tasks that require you to focus on and remember important details. You are unable to be flexible or innovative in your thinking when your brain has been hijacked by negative emotions. If this is a regular occurrence, it will prevent you from completing your tasks and ultimately stop you from achieving your goals.
To quickly gauge your emotional state, think about how worried you are. Worry has a negative impact on your energy and optimism. While some worry is completely normal (e.g., wondering about your answers immediately after turning in an exam), excessive worry can be a sign that you are losing emotional control. When this emotion takes over your thoughts, it will drain you of energy and give you a more pessimistic outlook.
How can I improve my emotional control?
- Know your triggers. Try to determine the things that set you off and test your emotional control. This can be challenging, but knowing yourself will allow you to analyze what to do in different situations. For example, if you know your best friend complaining about trivial problems gets you upset, then you can approach the situation with an open mind and prepare yourself for the interaction next time.
- Avoid your triggers. Once you have identified your triggers, avoid the ones you can. A careful note on avoidance, though: Ignoring a problem will not make it disappear. This strategy should only be used for small triggers, like rude service at a restaurant where you like to eat. This trigger is easy to avoid and will not cost you anything in terms of emotional health. You simply don’t have to eat there anymore. With more important triggers, like family, friends, or classes, avoidance will not be the answer.
- Put the cell phone down. We are constantly accessible, and often respond to texts, calls, and emails too quickly. Take time to read (or listen to) messages and consider a response, especially when dealing with important matters that require professionalism. When your professor says you can’t have an extension on your paper, for example, don’t immediately write a mean or rude response. Rather, find a way to explain that you understand the policy and, if necessary, give a logical explanation for why you are asking for an extension. If you leave emotions out and rely on facts and logic, your requests are much more likely to be granted, or at least considered.
- Buy yourself time. If you’re in a situation that tests your emotional control, find a way to buy yourself some time and take a break. You might have to physically walk away or just take a mental pause. A note on this, though: If you need to leave the room, do not just get up and go. This can come across as rude! If you need some time, it’s important to communicate that to the people you are with. Try asking them to table the conversation until tomorrow, or explain that you would like a break to think things over.
- Reason with yourself. Sometimes you can talk yourself out of an emotional crisis. This takes practice and the awareness that you are losing emotional control in the first place. Once you recognize what is happening, tell yourself all of the reasons that a strong reaction will not help. For example, if you are in a car accident, it is easy to quickly lose emotional control. However, that would also make it difficult to communicate with the other driver, the police officer, and your insurance company. Just remind yourself that, even though it is a bad event, these things happen and there are plenty of people who are there to help (including the police and insurance representatives).
- Look for the positives. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Look on the bright side.” It came to be for a reason—it actually works! When in an emotional crisis, force (and train) yourself to search for positive points or alternative points of view. So when you don’t get that extension you wanted, realize that since you now have to stay in tonight, it will save you some money! Plus, you learned that you need to improve your time management instead of waiting until the last minute to work on assignments. Looking for the positives can really alter your perspective and help you quickly move through an emotional crisis.
- Meditate. Meditation and mindfulness are effective ways to calm yourself down in an emotional crisis. Meditation requires you to be still, take deep breaths, and focus on something simple, like each breath or your pulse. By doing this, you will physically lower your heart rate and be better able to address the issue at hand.
- Find social support. If you struggle to reason with yourself or can’t find the positives, an outside perspective can be extremely helpful. Like we said earlier, everyone has feelings and everyone deals with losing emotional control at some point. It’s normal. That said, if it becomes a pattern and you find yourself struggling to regain control, you may want to seek out social support. This can involve talking to your friends, family, professors, or a counselor. Since we all go through this at some point, outsiders may have some great points or advice to share with you.
There is no one “right” way to deal with stress and handle your emotions. The general rule here is to find a strategy that lessens the strength of your emotions in the moment and helps you move forward while maintaining positive relationships. Your life goal should be to have the positives outweigh the negatives in your daily experiences.