How to navigate the chaotic experience of emotions. Learn the role that emotions play in our lives. Notice when you are dysregulated and discover the path back to regulation. Enjoy peace and joy that the world cannot give.
Every day, we experience a spectrum of emotions...
A new day dawns expectant hope.
Frustration rises when you spill your coffee on your favorite shirt.
You make a big mistake and feel crippled by shame.
Overwhelmed, anxiety eats at your insides as a deadline looms over you with not enough time to meet it.
Joy sparks in your soul when you do what you love and feel fulfilled.
A note on your desk from your boss invokes terror. Why does she want to meet? What did I forget to do? Am I getting fired?
You blow up at your spouse because they bought something they didn't need and money is tight.
You lose a loved one suddenly and after months of grieving, hopelessness and isolation lead to depression.
Your head is pounding as you escape to the bathroom and lock the door. It's the only place you can find peace from your screaming kids.
A friend sends you an encouraging text out of the blue and you feel empowered.
Oftentimes, we have no idea what to do with our emotions. We feel like they rule us instead of us ruling them. We cause damage and say things we don't mean when our emotions feel out of control. When we find ourselves swirling in a sea of emotions, we reach for joy, peace, and fulfillment. We long for regulation.
Regulation is abundant life rooted in joy, peace, and satisfaction.
When you feel safe, unconditionally loved, accepted, at peace, full of joy, or fulfilled, you are regulated. We were created by God to live in regulation. This is where we experience wholeness and holiness...where the layers of our identity are aligned and integrated. God's presence regulates us, connecting conversations regulate us, rest and soul care regulate us, selflessly serving others regulates us, and the list goes on.
The challenge is, regulation seems elusive. When we experience challenging emotions like shame, despair, rage, and terror, it's easy to get stuck in them and let them highjack our lives. When this happens, we become dysregulated. Instead of the relaxed excitement that we experience in regulation, we feel like our emotions are out of control.
Dysregulation is high or low emotional chaos
When you feel isolated, hopeless, depressed, inadequate, frustrated, or full of rage, you are dysregulated. Tension rises, you feel on edge, act critical, and a storm of challenging emotions rages within you in dysregulation. This is not the life we want to live but too often find ourselves there. When we do, we can cause harm to others and ourselves, fail to regulate our kids, get stuck in our own story instead of empowering others, and stop short of our potential.
Last year, I had to take our Golden Retriever, Gus, to the vet for an emergency visit. He got a round of immunizations and experienced a rare reaction that made the whites of his eyes swell. We could tell it was painful for him and he was scary to look at with his eyes like that. It terrified us. We were worried he might lose his eyesight if we didn't do something quick. Thankfully, my wife did some research online and discovered this was something that rarely happens to Goldens. Prednisone should do the trick, but of course, the vet needed to see him and do all of the tests. The bill was higher than we expected and money was tight. I gave them one card hoping there was enough money to cover the bill. There wasn't. I gave them another card with the same hope. It didn't have enough either. Finally, with the third card, we were able to pay the balance. I left the vet with my tail between my legs completely drenched by a tidal wave of shame. I felt horrendously embarrassed for having to hand them three different cards, frustrated that we weren't prepared for this, and hopeless that we could ever get ahead financially. These emotions dysregulated me so much that I drove home and let loose on the punching bag in the basement to let off steam.
When was the last time you felt dysregulated? What emotions did you feel? What did you do?
Here's the million dollar question...How do we manage our emotions productively? How do you calm the storm of emotions when you feel like a sinking ship drowning in them? The Regulation Spectrum helps you pinpoint where you are in your emotions on a scale of 1 to 10. When you can put a number on your emotions, you can re-orient yourself and work your way back to regulation. How do you do that? I'm glad you asked.
How to get regulated:
1. NAME YOUR NUMBER - Orienting yourself on the Regulation Spectrum starts with naming your number. When you experience despair, numbness, self-hatred, apathy, depression, etc. you are somewhere between 1-4 in Low Dysregulation (see diagram above). On the other side, when you feel hostile, anxiety, terror, or you have sensations of fight, flight, or freeze, you are somewhere between 7-10 in High Dysregulation.
In any given moment, whether you are feeling high or low emotions, ask yourself what number you are on the Regulation Spectrum.
If you don't pay attention to where you are on the Spectrum and don't do anything to ground yourself, the more likely you are to start "red-lining" emotionally either at 1 or 10. Just like a car's gauges "red-line" when the pressure in the engine is too high, so does your body warn you that shutdown or overwhelm is around the corner if you don't take time to regulate. The sooner you can pinpoint your number, the quicker you can cope courageously to get back to regulation. Let's talk about that next...
2. COPE COURAGEOUSLY - When we experience difficult emotions, we strive to work through them and get back to regulation by coping. Self-soothing, praying, self-care, relaxation, spiritual disciplines, exercising, singing worship songs, deep breathing, journaling, and talking with a close friend, counselor or life coach are excellent examples of healthy coping. When we intentionally practice actions like these, we return to regulation. That said, healthy coping takes courage, strength, and is often NOT a quick fix. To drill down to the root of the struggles that dysregulate you takes energy, effort, and sometimes, professional help. It's anything but easy but always worth it in the end. When it comes to coping, the challenge is, it's much easier to practice unhealthy coping. Over-eating, media-binging, consuming pornography, impulse-shopping, drinking, doing drugs, gossiping, and addictions of all kinds are examples of unhealthy coping.
Unhealthy coping promises regulation but delivers dysregulation.
Oftentimes, when we settle for unhealthy coping, we swing from one end of the Spectrum to the other. When a porn addict feels stressed out from life in High Dysregulation, the rush of porn promises regulation, but when acted upon delivers Low Dysregulation through numbness and shame. When you feel dysregulated, try intentionally practicing one of the healthy coping examples above for 20 minutes. Giving yourself this time to self-soothe allows the fight, flight, and freeze hormones in your body time to dissipate and you are less likely to act impulsively (https://www.gottman.com/blog/weekend-homework-assignment-physiological-self-soothing/) As we begin to become more aware of our number on the Spectrum and practice healthy coping, we are able to leverage transformation tipping points. That's up next...
3. TIP INTO TRANSFORMATION - Take a look again at the Regulation Spectrum diagram. Notice the arrows pointing both ways at 4 and 7. These are the transformation tipping points. When you are at 4 or 7 on the Spectrum, you have a choice. You can either tip toward dysregulation by practicing unhealthy coping, or you can tip toward regulation by practicing healthy coping. There's a lot of tension at these points because the potential for transformation is high and as one of my mentors, Mike McFarren, says, "Transformation is a violent process." In these moments, we either continue in our unhealthy habits or we intentionally reject them and choose healthier ones. Tipping into transformation is absolutely necessary to make this switch. The strength needed to choose transformation in these moments is greater than anything we can muster. We need the power of God.
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." - Romans 12:2 (NIV)
4. REDEEM REGULATION - What we've been pointing to in this whole discussion is regulation. But here's the catch, worldly peace and regulation are limited because they are based on our current circumstances or season of life. Hope is based on circumstances working in our favor and peace is the absence of war. Worldly regulation is situational. But regulation that comes from God is based on His character and track record. Biblical hope is based on God's ability to come through again and again. Regulation that comes from God is redeemed regulation. A lesser-known definition of redeem is to fulfill or fully satisfy. So, God's regulation is unlimited and untouched by circumstances. It's why Philippians 4:7 says the peace of God surpasses our understanding. In other words, it doesn't always makes sense. It comes when you least expect it. When anxiety overwhelms you and you cry out to God, His peace overwhelms your anxiety and leaves you completely regulated even if your circumstances don't change. This is a peace that can ONLY come from God. Listen to the words of Jesus...
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid." - John 14:27, NLT
Peace is not just a feeling of relaxation, but wholeness. The reason we feel whole is because we are aligned and integrated (not dis-integrated in dysregulation). All the layers of our identity are connected, not disconnected chaos. Take a couple minutes to watch this video to see what I mean...
Regulation that comes from God is complete, fulfilled, and fully satisfied.
In fact, I would wager that heaven is unending regulation for the glory of God. When we experience godly regulation on earth, it is a foretaste of heaven. Regulation is a small fraction of the magnitude of heaven invading earth and our hearts. According to John 10:10, behind-the-scenes of our lives, our great enemy, Satan, wants to steal, kill, and destroy (dysregulate) us, but Jesus wants to give us rich and satisfying, abundant life to the full (regulation). What are you willing to do to have this kind of life?
**Much of what we've learned about regulation is heavily influenced by Adam Young Counseling. We are deeply grateful for Adam's work on this subject. We encourage you to listen to this podcast to learn more about regulating affect: https://adamyoungcounseling.com/2019/10/05/affect-regulation-why-its-critical-for-everyday-life/.