Movement For Emotional Regulation

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to adapt your emotions in response to different situations and challenges in a healthy, balanced way, with an orientation towards restoring equilibrium. Just like a healthy heart that can increase and decrease blood flow according to internal and external demands, emotional regulation is about flexibility, and as with the heart, the key feature is about returning to a healthy baseline following emotional peaks and troughs.

Other dimensions of emotional regulation can include one’s awareness of their emotional states, i.e., knowing that you are experiencing emotions as opposed to being consumed by your emotions. Sensory awareness is the capacity to feel subtle and nuanced sensations relating to your emotional state, which can help you discern what it is you’re feeling – body and mind – in the present moment. More fundamentally, it is having the tolerance to be with your emotions – psychologically and physically.  Emotional regulation also refers to behaviour, that which is elicited from the emotion. For example, our impulses, reactions, and constructive responses.

What is emotional dysregulation?

If you experience emotional dysregulation, you may feel emotionally disempowered, and lack agency over your emotions and subsequent actions. For example, you may experience intense and overwhelming emotions that lead to unpredictable responses, disproportionate to the situation at hand, or impulsive behaviours that momentarily sooth emotional discomfort, but fail to support you in the long run. Unlike the flexible, adaptive quality of emotional regulation; emotional dysregulation can give rise to rigid emotional patterns and states, creating negative feedback loops that affect mood and behaviour.

How are emotions made?

Information flows from your body to your brain through sensory pathways so that your brain can keep you physiologically regulated. Although the minutia of activity happens beneath conscious awareness, the sum of all these physiological processes results in the conscious phenomena that is our ‘felt sense’. In scientific terms this is called ‘interoception’, in everyday experience terms, this might translate as awareness of one’s heartbeat, breath, feelings of tiredness, hunger, fullness, embodiment, disembodiment…The part of your brain associated with interoception is also deeply linked to consciousness, emotional processing, and body image.

Evidence suggests that dysfunctional interoceptive processing is associated with psychosomatic disorders including eating disorders, disordered eating behaviours and body image issues. In terms of symptoms, dysfunctional interoceptive processing can manifest as a difficulty recognising bodily signals, emotional dysregulation, impaired self-regulation (e.g., eating and sleeping patterns), sensory and cognitive processing issues, and body image disturbances.

How do we learn emotional regulation?

The good news is that interoceptive awareness is a skill that we can learn, that not only helps us regulate physiologically, but emotionally too. These two constructs– our physiology and emotions – exist on a continuum, as opposed to separate functions of body and mind.  I said at the beginning that we learn through doing, not thinking, and that’s because the body is the gateway to our emotions, and the language it speaks is sensation. Improving interoceptive awareness also has implications for improving the psychological relationship that we have with our body.

Practices which help cultivate interoceptive awareness are mindful and contemplative by nature. By its very definition interoceptive awareness is about, well, awareness; being attentive to what you’re experiencing on a moment-to-moment basis. Like emotional regulation it’s not only about developing a sensitivity to nuances and subtleties, but tolerating your feelings and sensations as they arise and dissipate moment-to-moment. And that requires a specific kind of attention, one that is curious, open, broad, yet vigilant and focused. A really good starting point is to practice breath awareness, whilst trying not to interfere with your breath in anyway, just letting it do its thing whilst observing how it feels and noticing how it might change. Remember, interoception is about your internal sense, so be curious in how the breath feels inside your body, how it presses out against your ribs and soft tissues. Can you get a sense of the internal space of your chest, where do you feel the breath in your body, does it have a rhythm or even a texture? This practice is very accessible because the breath is so accessible, despite us not paying it much attention in daily life.

It’s really key that you engage in this practice with an open mind. By all means acknowledge the pre-conceptions and judgements that you may have, or which might arise about how you breathe or the breathing practice itself, but can you stay open to the experience of breathing as it arises in the moment?

If you feel comfortable with the breathing practice and can maintain a quality of attention that is open and curious, then you might want to explore cultivating interoceptive awareness through movement. Do you remember I spoke of the fascia matrix – the sensory architecture of your body?  It’s sensory fluid fibres make up a network of connections and pathways that are organised into the shape that is you. Not only does the fascia provide your structure, it is also a vital component of interoception, transmitting sensory information to the brain. In movement you can work directly with the interoceptive system through force transmission, that is, exploring how forces move through your body. This can be as simple as lying down and noticing what happens when you yield your weight to the ground, or pressing your feet into the floor and noticing the sensation that comes back and where it goes (through your ankle, knee, hip, shoulder?). Forces travel through your fascial matrix and the really neat thing is, because your fascia is a global structure, i.e. it is a body-wide, multidimensional, continuous tissue; when you start to become aware of it, and it senses you becoming aware of it, an opportunity opens up for you to connect more deeply to your bodily intelligence, as a whole, integrated process.

Musicality in movement also taps deeply into emotional regulation. As new-born infants we learn how to regulate emotions through non-verbal cues with our caregiver, like eye gaze, vocalisations, and touch. These cues are transmitted via subtle patterns of rhythm, tempo, pause, and synchrony. Perhaps we can gently tune in to a fundamental desire to find harmony and emotional regulation within ourselves, by inviting musicality into our movement and approaching our body with curiosity and compassion.

Emotional regulation is not something we’re born with, it’s something we must learn. What’s more, we learn through experience, through feeling and sensing, through our relationship to the world around us. Learning to regulate your emotions is by doing, not thinking.

Helen Eadie



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