Emotions, moods, and our reactions to them serve an important purpose.
They help us connect with others, avoid harm, and learn from mistakes. Having a wide range of emotions and a variance of mood states and behaviors is what brings meaning and value to life.
Affect regulation is the ability to manage these states in a positive way. The ability to regulate affect helps individuals make intentional decisions and healthy choices and find peaceful relationships. It also improves mood, self-confidence, and life satisfaction (Taipale, 2016).
But affect regulation is not always easy. Situations, past trauma, genetic predisposition to mental illness, and poor attachment styles can create more barriers to attaining it. Working with a trained professional, learning techniques, and practicing affect regulation are well worth the effort.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
Affect regulation theory is the science of how individuals regulate emotions. It includes aspects of mentalization, attachment theory, relational trauma, self-awareness, and both internal and external facets of regulation (Siegel, 2012).
Essentially, affect regulation is the ability to manage and respond appropriately to emotions. This is particularly important for managing intense positive and negative moods (or affects) without becoming overwhelmed or turning to unhealthy coping strategies such as dissociation, drugs/alcohol, self-harm, or numbing mechanisms (Siegel, 2012).
Part of affect regulation lies in the concept of the “window of tolerance,” which is the optimal level of arousal for effectively processing experiences (Siegel, 2012).
Experiencing stressful situations and emotions such as anxiety, anger, and pain threatens to remove individuals from this window, leading to states of dysregulation. Affect dysregulation includes states of high anxiety, hypervigilance, rage, emotional distress, dissociation, and depression (Frewen & Lanius, 2006).
Individuals use a variety of emotional regulation strategies to manage positive and negative affect. These strategies impact feelings, emotional wellbeing, relationships, and even physical health (Butler & Randall, 2013).
Developing the skill of affect regulation enables us to stay present within the window of tolerance. Learning to manage emotions and develop skills to remain in this window of tolerance not only promotes mental wellbeing, but it also enables clients to seek new experiences, challenges, and opportunities and pursue dreams.
Affect Regulation vs. Emotion Regulation
Emotions can turn into a mood state if they are left unattended.
Moods can affect an individual’s emotions and the emotional intensity of situations.
Moods and emotions influence one another, and affect is a term that embodies both (Davidson, 2012).
While affect and emotion are often used interchangeably, there is a slight difference between the two terms. Affect regulation includes emotions, cognition, and behavior. Emotion regulation is a reflection of an individual’s mood status, rather than their affect (Hill, 2015).
Someone could have low emotional control but high levels of affect control through cognitive function and therefore demonstrate normal interpersonal skills (Hill, 2015). Emotional regulation skills are an important component in developing affect regulation.
There are a variety of different affect regulation skills that can help individuals modulate emotions and maintain this window of tolerance.
1. Grounding techniques
Grounding techniques focus attention away from overwhelming negative thoughts, feelings, or memories. When grounding, a client shifts focus from the internal stressor (thought/emotion) to the external environment (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
There are two key components of grounding. The first is to assure the client is safe and not in danger. The second is that they are in the here and now rather than the future or past. It is helpful to direct the client to focus on external sensory perceptions (sound, sight, smell, touch, taste) and provide reassurance of safety (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
2. Progressive relaxation
Progressive relaxation involves systematically clenching and releasing muscles from head to toe until the entire body is in a relaxed state (Mirgain & Singles, 2016). It is also known as progressive muscle relaxation.
It begins with a client clenching or flexing their feet (one at a time), then the lower legs and upper legs, moving up the body until they clench and release the muscles in the face.
This video provides guidance through the experience. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation regularly can help clients learn to relax physically and mentally in emotionally distressing situations.
Progressive muscle relaxation training - Mark Connelly
3. Breath training
Breath training is helpful in affect regulation. When individuals are stressed, breathing may become shallower, and hyperventilation may occur. When clients can learn to breathe in a calm, efficient way, there is a relaxing effect on the body and autonomic nervous system (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Breath training may involve having a client sit in a comfortable position with eyes closed (or using a “soft stare” by gazing at the floor) and begin to pay attention to the breath.
A clinician might guide the client to breathe in and out for four to six counts, slowly and deeply. Practicing this for five to 10 minutes each day is a good starting place.
Visualization is a skill that is useful in bringing a sense of calm before or after a stressful situation. It is not designed to be used amid a crisis but can have a calming preparatory effect (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Clients can use guided imagery to learn to visualize a peaceful place such as the beach, outdoors, or somewhere that brings them comfort or joy. The client is encouraged to imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of the place.
They may be guided through this, or they may explain their image to the therapist as they walk through and experience the scene.
Mindfulness is a powerful skill that takes effort and practice but produces a wealth of benefits in affect regulation. Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013), one of the leading experts on mindfulness and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic defines mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment.
Training affect regulation in therapy may encompass anything that helps clients manage emotional states and choose appropriate responses (Siegel, 2012).
Controlling emotions can be automatic, or it can require intentional effort. Training affect regulation can help more automatic responses kick in when an individual is triggered emotionally.
One of the first steps in training affect regulation is to develop a deeper understanding of emotions. Teaching clients to put a name to their emotions is a critical first step.
A therapist can help clients understand facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and how emotions are felt in the body and put specific names to them. This activity is a tool designed for this purpose.
Therapists can also help clients understand hyper/hypoarousal or emotional dysregulation. Hyperarousal is a form of the “fight, flight, freeze” response, and hypoarousal is the “shut down” or “collapse” response (Siegel, 2009).
Between these two states is what Dan Siegel (2009) calls the “window of tolerance.” Clients can learn to widen this window to avoid hypo- and hyperarousal by recognizing physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms and increasing their capacity to feel a broad range of emotions.
Clients can also benefit by thinking about emotions in advance, before they are experienced. Discussing emotions, triggers, and appropriate reactions can prepare them to respond differently in specific situations. Clients can develop strategies in advance and use coping skills to regulate affect, such as the affect regulation skills described earlier.
4 Strategies to Teach Your Clients
There are various strategies that clinicians can teach clients to help with affect regulation. Learning strategies can help individuals in daily life as they encounter triggers and stressful situations. Some of these strategies include cognitive reappraisal, suppression, identifying emotions, and processing traumatic events.
1. Cognitive reappraisal
Cognitive reappraisal involves changing how one thinks about a given situation (Perlman & Pelphrey, 2010). Clients can learn to identify the emotions, thoughts, and feelings about an event or something in the environment and take a step back to view it objectively.
One method of doing this is to encourage the client to picture the provoking event from a third-party perspective and consider alternate explanations, positive features, or lessons learned.
While cognitive reappraisal is a dispositional ability, it can be learned. Research shows that reappraisal decreases anger and rumination (Perlman & Pelphrey, 2010). Cognitive reappraisal is most effective if it is practiced before the stressful event or trigger. Engaging in reappraisal before encountering a provocation can alter the emotion and response (Zahavi, 2015).
For example, if a client consistently has issues with a colleague at work and becomes angry at their rude behavior, they can anticipate the behavior before the interaction. The client can imagine a scenario at work where they can remain emotionally detached and come up with a plan to respond in advance.
Suppression is a technique clients can use to avoid inappropriate reactions and regulate affect in the short term. Freud (1920) originally coined the term suppression to mean the conscious process of pushing down negative and distressful thoughts and feelings.
Suppressing emotions such as anger, resentment, sadness, and anxiety can be helpful in certain situations to avoid an argument or conflict at work or to appear professional. However, emotions, thoughts, and feelings should eventually be addressed.
3. Identify and discriminate emotions
In addition to the affect regulation skills mentioned previously, it is important for clients to perceive and label emotions as they are experienced (Campos et al., 2004).
Often, when clients are dysregulated, they are unsure of what emotions they are actually experiencing. This uncertainty can increase the emotional response and create a feeling of chaos and unpredictability.
Teaching clients to label emotions accurately by regularly “checking in” can take the power out of the emotion. Clients should be encouraged to feel an emotion, label the emotion, and notice where the emotion is located in the body without judgment or expectation.
This simple act of observing, labeling, and feeling with acceptance and detachment increases the ability to regulate affect.
4. Affect regulation for trauma processing
Individuals who experience trauma tend to struggle with affect regulation. Long-term exposure-based trauma therapy may be necessary in some cases. One of these strategies is known as titration (Gross, 2007).
Titration is exposing a client to levels of distress, such as traumatic memories, thoughts, or feelings, that are not completely overwhelming so they become more comfortable with them (Gross, 2007).
Clients are taught to self-soothe, reframe upsetting thoughts, call on relational support, and discover that negative states are tolerable. A therapist can use the skills mentioned above and model affect regulation strategies.
Therapist Toolbox: Best Worksheets & Activities
There are a variety of worksheets and activities that can benefit professionals in the mental health field as they teach clients how to regulate affect.
It encourages clients to pay attention to positive events, take care of physical health, and fact-check negative thought processes. It also walks clients through selecting appropriate behaviors when they become emotionally dysregulated.
The National Institute of Clinical Behavioral Medicine provides this free worksheet, which provides psychoeducation on the three circles of emotional regulation. This is useful in helping individuals understand the drive system, soothing system, and threat system and identify where they are feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Music is a wonderful tool that can help with regulating affect as it can help improve one’s mood when feeling down. This free worksheet was created by Channing Shippen. It is a “self-regulation” playlist sheet that has clients identify songs and artists that validate specific emotions.
Empathy is a powerful tool in affect regulation. Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s emotions and be with them in the emotion without becoming overwhelmed or reacting in hurtful ways.
The Empathy Bingo worksheet can be used in group settings and teaches clients to identify and select appropriate responses in triggering environments and situations.
A great resource for your toolbox can be found in the What is the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule? (PANAS) article. It explains PANAS, the positive and negative affect schedule, as a useful scale for assessing affect. PANAS is a widely used measure of both positive and negative affect that can be helpful in both clinical and community settings.
Emotional Intelligence is a critical part of wellbeing and the core values of positive psychology. This course offers 9 CEUs approved by the American Psychological Association and includes slide presentations, videos, exercises, and handouts that can be used in sessions.
Through the course, practitioners learn how some techniques and counseling methods can be specifically applied to regulating affect. Topics such as the difference between feeling emotions and expressing them, differentiating positive and negative emotions, and learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions are covered. Through mindfulness, visualization, identifying (naming), and expressing emotions, clients can improve affect regulation.
Other Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Journaling emotions can be helpful in processing negative feelings and events. Our Journaling for Mindfulness article provides journaling prompts and activities that can help clients manage emotions and regulate affect healthily.
Recognize, accept, take care, and express feelings (or RATE) is a useful tool in identifying negative emotions and learning to express emotions in appropriate ways. The RATE Worksheet walks clients through these four steps to improve affect regulation.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.
A Take-Home Message
Emotions are often hard to control, and distressing emotions are particularly difficult to feel and manage appropriately. The management of these emotions, moods, feelings, and our reactions to them forms the basis of affect regulation.
Yet these emotions, moods, thoughts, and feelings, whether positive or negative, all serve a purpose and play a role in our survival, health, and prosperity as humans. Learning how to feel emotions, reframe negative thought patterns and select healthy responses is a key skill that anyone can benefit from.
Without affect regulation, our work, professional life, social relationships, and general wellbeing suffer. The techniques and strategies discussed in this article are a wonderful place to begin developing and improving affect regulation.
Butler, E., & Randall, A. (2013). Emotional co-regulation in close relationships. Emotional Revelation, 5, 202–210.
Campos, J., Frankel, C., & Cameras, L. (2004). On the nature of emotion regulation. Child Development, 75, 377–394.
Davidson, R. J. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. Hudson Street Press.
Freud, S. (1920). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. Horace Liveright.
Frewen, P. A., & Lanius, R. A. (2006). Toward a psychobiology of posttraumatic self-dysregulation: reexperiencing, hyperarousal, dissociation, and emotional numbing. Annals of the New York Academy of Science Journals, 1071:110-24.
Gross, J. (2007). Handbook of emotion regulation. Guilford Press.
Hill, D. (2015). Affect regulation theory: A clinical model. W. W. Norton & Company.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. Hachette Books
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. Bantam Books.
Mirgain, S., & Singles, J. (2016). Progressive muscle relaxation therapy. VA Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation.
Perlman, S., & Pelphrey, K. (2010). Regulatory brain development: Balancing emotion and cognition. Social Neuroscience, 5, 533–542.
Siegel, D. J. (2009). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. Guilford Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind. How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. Guilford Press.
Taipale, J. (2016). Self-regulation and beyond: Affect regulation and the infant-caregiver dyad. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 880–892.
Zahavi, D. (2015). You, me, and we: The sharing of emotional experiences. Journal of Conscious Studies, 22, 84–101.
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About the author
Dr. Melissa Madeson, Ph.D., believes in a holistic approach to mental health and wellness and uses a person-centered approach when working with clients.
Currently in full-time private practice, she uses her experience with performance psychology, teaching, and designing collegiate wellness courses and yoga therapy to address a range of specific client needs.