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Healthy emotion regulation

Knowing how to regulate your emotions is an important skill for everyone. Emotions are constantly changing in response to situations, triggers and goals. We can learn to adjust and manage which emotions we have, how intense they are, when we have them and how we react to them.

For one reason or another, people who are in alcohol or other drug treatment can experience very strong emotions. Sometimes it’s a result of alcohol or other drug use. Sometimes it’s the reason for it.

Knowing how to work with clients who have difficulty regulating strong or distressing emotions is a critical skill for clinicians working with people who use alcohol and other drugs.

Healthy emotion regulation includes:

  • ability to recognise an emotional response and to understand where it came from
  • accepting that emotional responses are neither good nor bad, but just normal reactions to everyday situations – as Hamlet said: …for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so
  • having access to effective strategies to reduce the intensity of emotions, including ability to recognise and reflect on the causes of the emotional response
  • separating emotions from behaviour and understanding how to control impulsive behaviours in response to strong emotions – feeling angry with someone does not have to inevitably lead to physical confrontation, for example.
  • looking after yourself to reduce emotional vulnerability – for example, healthy eating, sleep, exercise. We now have much more awareness of how lifestyle factors impact on emotional health and wellbeing

Most people learn these skills as a child, but some people, especially those who have had a traumatic upbringing have not acquired those skills along the way. But it is a skill we can all improve on.

Sometimes, we can inadvertently respond in unhelpful ways to people experiencing strong distressing emotions, escalating the problem. This can happen when practitioners feel ill-equipped to provide effective responses to help people in distress.

But these skills are easy to acquire for practitioners and will make the work of therapy a lot easier and more effective.

Dr Richard Cash
Head of Service Development