What happens in counselling anyway? One important aspect of the counselling that I provide clients in Squamish and across BC online, has to do with learning to be with our emotions through emotion regulation.
Emotions provide us with crucial information about ourselves and the world around us, about our needs, likes, dislikes, perceptions, and values. They help us to feel joy, elation, and connection, and conversely, sadness, shame, and isolation. But what are emotions anyway?
Let’s start by understanding some basic terms. Affect is the umbrella for psychological states that involve the valuation of whether something is “good for me” or “bad for me.” Under affect are stress responses, typically negative states that arise from an inability to meet the demands of a particular situation—think here of fight, flight, or freeze. Also, under the umbrella of affect are moods, these are typically long lasting, pervasive, and diffuse. We might feel “down” or “grumpy.” Then there are emotions. Whereas moods are sustained, emotions are fluctuating and elicited by specific events that give rise to a particular response. Emotions are experienced subjectively, that is we all experience emotions differently, and they involve a change in behaviour, physiology, and thinking.
Emotions can be painful, challenging, and we may learn to ignore them as a result. Perhaps, we were discouraged from expressing emotion in childhood or there was no one safe to express emotion to, so we learned to suppress emotion altogether.
Suppressing emotion is an attempt at emotion regulation, one of many strategies that attempt to shift some aspect of emotional experience. We are motivated to increase positive emotional states and to decrease negative ones. We may attempt to do this by changing the intensity, duration, or quality of emotion experience. This can take on “a bewildering variety of forms, including focusing on one’s breathing, punching a pillow, texting a friend, going for a run, having a drink, taking a nap, reading a book, quitting one’s job, biting one’s lip, or thinking about a situation differently” (Gross, 2015). Typically, we learn ways to regulate emotion as children and repeat these patterns throughout the rest of our lives.
Much of the work of counselling is in noticing and being with emotional states to better understand the information they are trying to share with us. Ultimately, this looks like learning new strategies to regulate emotion.
In counselling, emotion regulation can take on different strategies. We can focus on attention. While noticing a feeling, we can also direct attention to the experience of “not being alone” or the part of ourselves who feels “calm.” We may work with cognitive change so a shift in perspective helps the emotion to feel less overwhelming. In the case of fear, for example, we might reappraise a situation so that the risks seem less great.
My favourite path to emotion regulation is by addressing the emotional response itself by working with it in mindfulness and in the body. Often, staying with the physiological experience of an emotion, the tightness in the chest or the churning in the belly, helps the sensation to dissipate and the wave of the emotion to move through us. And this opens up the possibility for new and different emotional states.
Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological inquiry, 26(1), 1-26.