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Learning to self-regulate our emotions

There are days that are sent to test us. We’ve all experienced them. The series of unfortunate events begins to unfold early – usually a coffee spill on a crisp white shirt, or toothpaste on your tie. You then leave your phone on the kitchen counter, and only realise this when you are too far down the road to turn back… And then THAT e-mail… It sends you over the edge and sets in motion the perfect storm to throw the whole day off course. 

You’d be forgiven for feeling a little grumpy at this point. Disruption has a way of getting under our skin and everything appears wrong with the world from this point, and by the end of the day, even the poor dog is going to get it as you walk through the front door. 

Managing the bad days, and the emotions that go with it, is a skill that takes time to develop. We’re not born with the ability to innately self-regulate our emotions; this is something we are taught, and that we pick up through the social cues we receive as we grow up (if you’re anything like me, this is still a work in progress!). 

Our emotions are very important, and should not be ignored. When we feel angry about something, it is worth asking ourselves why. Anger is often a default response to a more complex web of feelings that lie underneath. Asking ourselves questions, like ‘What am I feeling?’ and ‘What has happened to cause me to feel this way?’ and teaching our children to do the same, helps us to regain control of emotions that threaten to overwhelm us. Knowing that we are feeling disappointed, sad, or nervous may help to explain why we are responding in a tetchy manner to something that is very small. The idea is not to suppress emotion, but rather to understand why we are feeling the way we do, and then adjust our response. This is not always easy, and takes practice. 

Not being mindful of our emotions and simply sweeping them under the carpet is not a healthy response. It may cause a myriad of mental and physical health symptoms, like: anxiety, depression, sleep issues, muscle tension and pain, difficulty managing stress; and in some cases, we may lean on the use of substances to mask emotions that are difficult to manage. There is a bit of a balancing act in all of this – if we ignore our emotions we stand the risk of not experiencing this very important part of the human experience. Children should also be taught that feeling and expressing emotions is a very important part of life (we must embrace it), but that there is a way in which to do so, without harming those around us, as well as ourselves. 

There are some helpful pointers relating to how to go about dealing with emotions: 

  • When overwhelming emotions arise, take some time out. Responding in the moment is not always helpful, and creating a little physical and emotional distance can be beneficial. 

  • Emotions can be revisited. Dealing with tension or anger when both parties are upset may trigger a far bigger response than is necessary. Let things breathe. 

  • Timing is everything. There are times when intense joy or delight can be expressed publicly, for example, but not when someone else has just received disappointing news. We may need to delay our expression of triumph in the interests of empathy and maintaining good relationships with others. 

  • Try to manage stress. Stress creeps up on one, and if left undealt with may cause outbursts of anger or frustration, which could have longer term consequences. We need to teach our children the importance of regular exercise, getting enough sleep, having social time with friends, exploring hobbies and spending time in nature to manage our stressful lifestyles. This is a valuable life skill that will stand them in excellent stead. 

Thinking about our emotions as important signalmen along the way will help us to be more accepting of them. They are neither positive or negative, but simply indicators of what we may be experiencing at a given time. Learning to decode them by asking the right questions and giving ourselves the space to experience them constructively will go a long way to help us live emotionally fulfilling lives. 

Craig Cuyler
Assistant Deputy Head/Director of Wellbeing
Head of PSHEe/Deputy DSL/ Assistant Housemaster

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