Affect Regulation: When Feelings Get Too Big
Updated: Jan 3, 2019
"Affect is at the core of our being, a measure of our heart. It excites and deflates us, connects and distances our relations with others. it organizes us and undoes us"
Affect refers to our moment to moment experience of our internal bodily sensations. It includes our emotional, physiological and somatic experiences. When our affect is effectively regulated, we are at our most adaptive. We can intentionally manage our attention, deliberately concentrate where we wish, access memory as needed, reflect on our thoughts, feelings, solve problems with a sense of confidence and competence, play freely and engage in connected relationships. In these moments, we are our best selves!
When our affect is unregulated, we aren't in control of our bodily sensations--including our thoughts and feelings. Because we feel out of control in these moments, we do not feel safe. When we feel like we can't manage our inner experience, our sense of competence and well being is diminished. In these moments, we cannot reflect on our selves, we can become rigid and highly reactive. Our ability to relate to others becomes strained. During these times, we go into "Fight, Flight or Freeze" mode: either acting out in anger and aggression (fight), experience intense anxiety (flight) or shut down (freeze).
To be clear, all of us have moments of dysregulation--it's part of being human. The key to emotional well-being is spending more time in the regulated zone than not, as well as strengthening the ability to regain balance, once we have become dysregulated.
What Does Dysregulation Look Like?
Imagine having an argument with your partner. One partner is screaming, the other shuts down entirely, responding with "the silent treatment". In these moments, both partners are out of the regulation zone.
Imagine a child having a "meltdown". She is crying, screaming, kicking, biting, etc. In these moments, she is out of the regulation zone. As frustrating as these episodes can be for you, they can be very scary for her--during these times, she doesn't feel safe. If you begin yelling as well, it's likely that you have also become dysregulated, along your the child.
Imagine having a panic attack. Your stomach is severely distressed, and you are having trouble breathing. You are scared you are going to have a heart attack, that the feelings will never go away, and that everyone will see you suffering. You are out of the regulation zone in these moments.
How Do We Regulate Our Affect?
This can be the hardest, but most rewarding work there is. And it is work--it can be a daily, moment to moment practice. Here are some ideas to help:
1. Seek Comfort. See my post "Attachment 101". The primary human strategy for affect regulation is through attachment--a relationship with a parent, romantic partner or other loved one. The trick about this is that when we are dysregulated, our behaviors often push people away. For parents, we can keep this in mind, and use strategies like "Time-Ins" and other ways that support re-connection. See my post on the Circle of Security. For grown ups, it means actively trying to act mindfully, and expressing feelings in a way that promotes re-connection with our loved ones.
2. Deep Breathing. Though it sounds simple, taking a few deep breaths actually releases chemicals that trigger our parasympathetic nervous system--the "stop" drive. Deep breathing will counter the stress hormones and consequent physiological activity and sensations in the body. It will also reduce the anxious and catastrophic thinking that can be triggered by that physiological and somatic experience that leaves us feeling unsafe.
3. Recognize What Zone You Are In. Practice reflecting on where you are in terms of regulation zones throughout the day. Notice what each zone feels like in your body and mind. Practice implementing your strategies when you find yourself outside of your regulation zone. For kids, use a visual poster with strategies they can use to get back in the zone.
4. Pro-Active Self Care. Exercise. Eat quality foods. Get enough sleep. Monitor your caffeine intake, as well as other drugs and alcohol. All of these factors can increase your risk of moving out of the regulation zone more frequently.
5. Put Feelings Into Words. We practice this with children, "Use your words!", but it's also helpful for adults. Use "I" statements. Talk about how you're feeling. Journal about it, if the other person isn't receptive. Just make sure to set limits with the writing--"close the book" when you're finished. With kids, when meltdowns are over, and everyone has calmed down, problem solve another way we could have managed the incident.
Creating Space Counseling and Wellness is centered in Affect Regulation Theory and invites you to learn more and to experientially practice regulation skills in my safe, supportive space. With an affect-attuned therapist, your brain, mind and body will begin to learn that with practice, you can be competent in affect regulation, and that you can feel safe.
Contact me today to begin the most important and rewarding work of your life!