02 Mar

Someone who has good emotional self-regulation has the ability to keep their emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment. Andrea Bell,

What is Self-Regulation?

The aim of this blog is to give a basic overview of emotional and behavioural self-regulation. I believe this is a topic worth exploring in order to better understand its importance in regard to our general resilience during this time of uncharacteristic chaos, and to our overall well-being.

When you think of it, as humans we prefer to be in a state of equilibrium or inner harmony. We possess an innate drive to find balance in our thinking, feeling and behaving lives. This drive presupposes that at times we find ourselves out of balance or in a state of disharmony, at which time we adapt by re-balancing our emotional and behavioural responses to the situation. In other words, we self-regulate.

Self-regulation is the ability to pause between a feeling and an action. During this pause, you think the situation through, make a plan, and consider the action. During this pause, you give yourself time to act according to your values, or social conscience and then express yourself appropriately.

Some Characteristics of Self-Regulators

  • They are able to calm themselves when upset
  • They can cheer themselves up when feeling down
  • They are able to be flexible and adapt to situations
  • They can remain clear about their intentions
  • They view challenges as opportunities

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor Frankl.

Causes of Dysregulation

Some individuals, however, have difficulty re-balancing their emotional or behavioural responses triggering excessive reactions, such as panic or anxiety attacks. This difficulty in self-regulation may be due to a chaotic childhood or growing up with role models that were themselves unable to self-regulate, or they may have had a series of unresolved traumatic experiences. Some consequences of inadequate self-regulation may include poor self-esteem, loneliness, negative affect (i.e., bad feelings), and poor overall psychological health ((Verzeletti, Zammuner, Galli, Agnoli, & Duregger, 2016).

Such individuals will benefit from therapy. For example, Self-Regulation Therapy specifically uses neuroscience and biology to help clients reduce “excess activation in the nervous system” (Canadian Foundation for Trauma Research & Education, n.d.). It does this by helping the client create different neural pathways resulting in a more flexible and appropriate behavioural or emotional response. The goal of most therapies, however, is to help individuals change emotional/behavioural dysregulation to functional self-regulation.

There are certain individuals with specific personality constellations (such as Borderline Personality Disorder) where self-regulation is particularly difficult to apply ( In such cases, it is advisable to consult with a therapist who has experience with such disorders. Interventions such as dialectical behaviour therapy, or cognitive-behavioural therapy are usually employed in these cases.

Anxiety or Panic Attack Interventions

To help self-regulate when you experience an anxiety or panic attack, here are some suggestions:

Strategies for Self-Regulation


One of the most effective strategies is Mindfulness. In practising mindfulness one learns “to put some space between ourselves and our reactions, leading to better focus and feelings of calmness and relaxation.”( In addition, mindfulness teaches us to improve attention, executive functioning (planning, memory, flexible thinking, self-control) and regulation of negative emotions. All these qualities improve self-regulation, build resilience and an overall sense of personal control.

Cognitive Reappraisal

This is a learned skill of reframing or reinterpreting a situation in order to change one’s emotional response to it. For example, if your friend hasn’t returned your text messages you might reactively feel that your friend “no longer likes” you. When practising cognitive reappraisal you’re encouraged to imagine that your friend may be “really busy” instead. The more you practise reinterpretation of a perceived negative event, the more positive emotions you are likely to experience.

Other interventions to consider are: meditation or prayer, yoga, daily affirmations, writing a gratitude journal, creative expression (dance, art, music, cooking).


In Summary

The skills of self-regulation also contribute to a feeling of success and achievement of personal goals in life. In this way, the ability to effectively self-regulate is positively correlated with an overall sense of well-being.


PS Rate your ability to self-regulate

If you would like to rate your ability to self-regulate, consider using the following questionnaire:

Thanks to the team at for this link.