Everybody has emotions, both positive and negative. We can never have complete control over them. If you struggle with intense emotions so much that it gets in the way of your everyday life, you may have trouble with affect regulation.
Updated on December 31st, 2023
What Is Affect Regulation?
Affect regulation is the capacity to handle emotional experiences and respond to emotions appropriately. Sometimes when you have intense emotions, you’re able to cope with them without being overwhelmed. However, when you feel hijacked by intense emotions, you might want to cope with them in ways that can make the situation worse. For example, you might turn to alcohol or drugs, lash out at others, or even harm yourself.
What Is Affect Regulation Theory?
Affect regulation theory tries to explain how we develop the ability to manage our responses to emotions. The main idea is that these abilities are rooted in our early childhood experiences.
For instance, think about when you were a baby. You had no idea how to manage your emotions! How did you learn to cope with them? The answer lies in the patterns of interactions with your parents or other caregivers. Kids learn how to handle emotions based on how adults in their lives respond to them.
Picture this: a child becomes frustrated. Hopefully, a parent or caregiver can step in and soothe the child. The soothing can happen verbally, like the adult telling the kid, “It is hard to not get what you want.” Or, “It’s okay to feel frustrated.” However, it can also happen nonverbally, like by giving the child a sympathetic look or rubbing his or her back. These kinds of responses can make the child feel understood and accepted, which helps bring down the intensity of their frustration. With consistent repetition, these experiences can show the child how to comfort themselves when they need to manage their own emotions, even without their caregivers.
These sensitive and caring interactions also help the child bond with their parents or caregivers. This attachment provides a safe space for the child to recognize, express and process their emotions, because they feel secure and emotionally supported. Having this bond with a caregiver sets the child up to feel safe enough to express and manage their emotions more independently once they are adults.
On the other hand, what if your caregiver reacts to your emotions negatively or inappropriately? Some caregivers don’t acknowledge their kids’ emotions or help their kids process emotions in a healthy way. Caregivers might be angry or annoyed with a child for expressing emotions, or they might be absent or non-responsive.
For example, when you were growing up, if your caregivers told you to just “suck it up” or that “you’re being dramatic,” you may have absorbed the message that your emotions are unacceptable or invalid. Under these circumstances, it would be harder for you to calm down your emotional intensity, compared to times you felt heard, understood, and comforted. If this happened to you consistently, then you might have had fewer opportunities to learn how to manage your feelings effectively. These insensitive interactions may have also negatively affected your bond with your caregiver. Without a safe space to express your emotions in childhood, you might find it more difficult to feel safe enough to express them and cope with them in adulthood. In other words, you might find affect regulation particularly difficult.
What Is Affect Management?
When you notice yourself having intense feelings, you have a few options. You can let yourself keep feeling it. Alternately, you could enhance or suppress its intensity. Or you could try to change how long you feel the emotion. Along these lines, affect management is taking action towards changing the intensity or duration of an emotion so it’s more manageable. Doing so lowers the chances that the emotion controls our behavior.
The idea behind affect management is that when we are stressed, our autonomic nervous system gets activated. There is an optimal level of physiological arousal at which we can still tolerate and respond to our emotions in a healthy way. Researchers call this the “window of tolerance.”
But what if you are faced with really stressful emotions? And what if you didn’t learn how to effectively manage intense emotions as a child? Or if you experienced a traumatic event that affected your physiological response to stress? In these cases, your level of arousal might place you outside your window of tolerance.
When that happens, people often have one of two reactions: for some, their emotions skyrocket and they feel overwhelmingly tense, anxious, and on “high alert.” Others might respond by being under-aroused and falling into states of feeling numb, depressed, or dissociated. Still others ping-pong between feeling emotions too intensely or not at all. Either way, these states of over- or under-arousal make it difficult to respond to their emotions in a helpful way.
The width of everyone’s windows of tolerance is different. Affect management aims to get you back to your own window of tolerance — a level of arousal where you can respond to and act on your emotions effectively.
What Is An Example Of Affect Regulation?
Let’s say that someone cuts in front of you in line for coffee when you’re running late for work. You might feel angry in this situation, and you might feel the urge to yell at them.
If you want to regulate your affect, there are many different options. Here are some common ways you can practice affect regulation.
- One strategy involves attention. Focus on the podcast you’re listening to or on the smell of coffee.
- Another strategy involves how you think. If you think of the person who cut in line as having intentionally ruined your day, it will make you more likely to yell at them. Rather than viewing them as someone out to get you, you can try changing your interpretation of the situation. You could view them simply as someone who made a mistake and was also running late. Alternatively, you could feel relief that your first meeting isn’t until an hour from now anyway.
- Another strategy requires some advance planning, but can be very effective. It’s about what situations you put yourself in. Try to plan your day to give yourself the best chance of keeping your feelings and actions under control. For instance, in this situation, you could choose to get to the coffee shop earlier next time. That way, you wouldn’t feel as rushed and you might not feel as angry.
- Lastly you could resolve that anger doesn’t need to dictate your actions. Instead of yelling, you can choose to acknowledge your anger but say nothing. Or, you could choose to calmly ask the other person to move to the back of the line.
Affect Regulation vs. Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is an idea that’s closely related to affect regulation. Emotions are feelings, like sadness, fear, and so on. So emotion regulation is the ability to control or manage your feelings.
Affect is often defined as the experiential or behavioral aspects of emotions. In this sense, affect regulation is the ability to control or manage how our feelings are expressed, and how much they affect our behaviors. You might struggle to bring your emotions down to a lower intensity. Yet you may still manage to speak calmly, do your job, and so on.
However, since the overlap between emotion regulation and affect regulation is so strong, some people use the terms interchangeably. In addition, many of the same strategies are useful in improving both emotion regulation and affect regulation.
Affect Regulation Exercises and Management
There are things you can do yourself to manage your emotions. These examples of affect regulation skills can give you the tools to prevent or to weather “emotional storms.”
- Meditation. Practicing awareness and mindfulness allows you to observe and respond to your emotions in a more balanced manner. This can lower your level of arousal and reduce the urge to react to your emotions impulsively.
- Exercise. Moving your body promotes the release of endorphins, which lowers your stress hormones. Consequently, exercising can help improve your mood.
- Journaling. Writing in a journal can provide a safe and reflective space to describe and process your emotional experiences. Journaling entails putting your experiences into words, which can help you understand yourself and your feelings better.
- Quality sleep. Your brain and your body need sleep to restore their ability to handle stressful events. Staying emotionally stable is tough when you don’t get much-needed rest.
- Talking with supportive friends. Having a support system gives you opportunities to connect with others and feel understood. Friends can provide validation or helpful perspectives on your situation. This can help you manage the intensity of your emotions.
- Slow down. Remember: just because you feel an emotion doesn’t mean you have to act on it. You can try sitting with the emotion instead, or distracting yourself from it until a later time when it might be less intense.
- Cope ahead. When you know what kinds of situations usually trigger intense reactions, you can prepare for them. You can think of ways to deal with your emotions during the situation in advance, while your emotions are not as intense.
These are just some ways, among many, that you can try to improve your affect regulation.
What Is The Difference Between Affect Regulation & Affect Dysregulation?
The inverse of affect regulation, described above, is affect dysregulation. Affect dysregulation is a lack of ability to manage our emotional experiences, and a lack of control over how we act in response to these emotions.
In the above example of anger at someone cutting in front of you in line, we listed some ways you can exhibit affect regulation. In contrast, you could respond to that same situation in a way that exhibits affect dysregulation. For example, you might scream at that person. Or you might angrily dwell on the incident for hours, or rant about it incessantly to every coworker you see. After work, you might still be angry and decide to drink alcohol excessively to deal with the anger.
If you felt intense anxiety in that moment instead of anger, you might feel driven to act in other dysregulated ways. For example, you might have wanted to ask that person to go to the back of the line, but you felt too panicky and froze. You might feel so intimidated by the prospect of this happening again that you stop going to coffee shops altogether. You might then decide that it’s safer if you just don’t interact with people at all, and withdraw from most social activities. All of these are examples of affect dysregulation.
Signs and Symptoms of Affect Dysregulation
If the above information seems to describe your experience, you might show signs of affect dysregulation. Signs and symptoms include:
- Regular mood swings
- Extreme reactions to “smaller” stressors
- Severe depression and/or anxiety
- Intense shame and anger
- Interpersonal relationships characterized by a lot of conflict
- Excessive alcohol or drug use
- Fluctuating between feeling numb and feeling panicky
- Disordered (unhealthy) eating, or restricting food intake
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
We all try to deal with our emotions in different ways. The strategies we choose to deal with them can have a huge impact, both positive and negative, on our daily lives. This is why affect regulation is such an important skill, especially when you often feel intense emotions.
Not everybody who has a hard time regulating intense emotions needs professional help! However, you may wish to consult with a therapist if you often struggle to deal with these emotions.
Affect dysregulation can be extremely challenging. Having out-of-control emotions can lead to out-of-control behaviors. These behaviors can affect your relationships, your work, your safety, and your peace of mind. That said, there are exercises you can do to help yourself better manage your emotions. Instead of feeling like your emotions control your actions, you can learn to be more in control your feelings and actions in emotional moments.