What Is Affect Regulation and How Can I Use it For My Clients?
Emotions and moods are complicated and are deeply affected by people’s experiences in life — including trauma. When people have trouble regulating their moods and emotions, it can cause problems in relationships, at work, and in school.
That’s why behavioral health professionals are working to help clients become intentional in managing their moods and emotions — affect regulation.
What Is Affect?
The term affect is best described as mood + emotion. When negative moods get the best of us, we become “dysregulated,” meaning it becomes difficult to cope with stressors. Feelings are hijacked, and we become overwhelmed. Some people become agitated, while others become numb, or dissociate. Others turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the experience.
A number of behavioral health strategies have been developed to help people experience and process their emotions in healthier ways.
Signs of Dysregulation
When people grow up in unstable situations with insecure attachments, they might find themselves as adults experiencing the highs and lows of hyperarousal and hypoarousal.
The Trauma and Beyond Center shares the following list of signs that someone is dysregulated.
Regular mood swings
Immediate and extreme reactions
Fluctuation between numbness and agitation
Stress causing panicky, agitated, or angry feelings
Withdrawing, numbing, or going blank when faced with difficult emotions
Feeling “on edge” or anxious at night
A tendency to become lethargic when stressed due to being emotionally overwhelmed
Becoming panicky, uneasy, and hypervigilant when stressed
Affect Regulation Strategies
Psychologist Dan Siegel, author of The Developing Mind, coined the term “window of tolerance” to describe a range within which people can stay regulated when experiencing stressful situations or difficult emotions.
Affect regulation aims to increase the window of tolerance by tapping into our innate desire to regulate our emotions.
The following are some common approaches used by clinicians for affect regulation.
Grounding is a way of shifting focus from a stressful thought or emotion to the immediate environment. When someone understands they are in a safe space, they can be directed to focus on the present moment, rather than worrying about something in the past or future. Clinicians can assist by guiding clients to explore their perceptions of sounds, sights, smells, touch, and taste.
Progressive relaxation is a way of slowing down breathing, scanning the body for tension, and tightening and releasing the muscles, starting with the feet and working up to the face.
People who are stressed tend to breathe faster and shallower, and sometimes they hyperventilate. Learning to breathe in a calm, deep way can help calm the nervous system. Clinicians can teach these techniques to their clients to use at home.
Visualization is a way of preparing for potentially stressful situations by picturing yourself approaching them calmly. Clinicians can also help clients by using a technique called guided imagery to help them describe the sights, sounds, and feelings of a place that brings them a sense of comfort: a forest, a beach, or a home.
Strategies for Clients
We cannot eliminate all stressful situations and triggers for clients, but many people can benefit from learning strategies for affect regulation. Positive Psychology suggests the following techniques:
Cognitive reappraisal — Viewing an event objectively and naming the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that arise. Some studies have shown that using this technique before a stressful situation can help people manage emotional responses.
Suppression — A short-term solution that involves avoiding immediate conflict by pushing aside negative emotions. For example, few people would recommend yelling at your boss, but if you can suppress your anger and bring it to the therapy room, you can work through the emotions there.
Identifying and discriminating emotions — Behavioral health professionals can help people check in, label their emotions, and even locate them in their bodies.
Trauma processing — Various levels of trauma processing, including exposure therapy, can help people process their experiences and move through to acceptance.
Emotional Regulation Skills
A common human tendency, especially in times of stress, is to pay closer attention to negative events and experiences than to positive ones. Some clinicians help clients to reframe and refocus emotions by encouraging journaling or scheduling positive experiences into their day.
Clinicians who want to learn more about affect management can learn other trauma-informed techniques like “drone voice,” The Enhanced Safe Place, Heart Math, and One Stone in the on-demand CWC course, “Client Affect Management: Helpful Tools for Success.”
By working with clients to better understand their moods and emotions and teaching techniques to avoid dysregulation, we can help generate positive experiences and help people move through trauma.
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