Trains, traffic and emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is the term we use to talk about how we manage big feelings. It’s a skill we all need in life and sometimes we are better at it than at other times. There are always going to be times when the feelings just feel too much, are too big to handle.

Have you ever had that situation where you’ve missed a train. Perhaps a train that you really needed to make, or that you rushed all morning to get to or perhaps that you can’t afford to miss. And then you do miss it and it feels like the worst thing in the work. In your head you are worrying about what it means, being late for something or what people might think of you or just the shear unfairness of it all. Or it might be that you’re stuck in traffic and you really really need to get somewhere, or you just want to be there or it’s all just a bit too much. Your brain starts to link the catalogue of things that will go wrong because of the traffic. These are situations where on some days we can emotionally regulate well – we can manage the worry of being late to work or missing part of an important event. We can plan how we will deal with the situation and we can calm ourselves down. On other days this is harder, perhaps because of what’s already happened that morning (research tells us for example that our ability to self-control gets tired after lots of use, so if we’ve spent all morning trying not to cry then we may have used up all our capacity already and the missed train is probably going to be the thing which starts us crying). Or perhaps it’s because we’re going through a rough patch generally and everything feels hard. Life can be pretty bumpy at times (see and

If we’re young then we learn how to manage the big feelings from our parents or the adults who care for us. They show us how to manage big feelings by not being overwhelmed when we’re upset. So, for example when the baby is overwhelmed by the uncomfortable feeling of a wet nappy they cry and the parent doesn’t lie down next to them and scream as well (except on the odd occasion when they are hugely sleep deprived!). Instead they let the baby know they understand and then they change the nappy. They regulate for the baby and thus the baby learns, in time, to regulate themselves. Older children return to parents for regulation when they need it, so the toddler who falls over comes crying to the parent so the parent can help them manage the big feeling they have. Older still children still need adults to help them manage situations which feel too much for them, although they might show us they need this by slamming doors or smouldering in a corner. And as adults we sometimes need someone else to regulate us. It’s why we phone a friend or call our mum when we’re having a hard time.

It’s also why we go to see people like me. Sometimes children and adults need a Clinical Psychologist. Sometimes we need a bit more help to process what is happening and deal with the feelings that arise. That’s what we do at Headspace Guildford (and we do it by playing jenga, going for a walk, drawing our worry bully, writing a story, making a tool kit, colouring salt for a feelings jar and many other ways besides- but that’s for another blog!)So, if you’re having a day when you’re finding emotional regulation really hard (as a child, a young person or an adult), take heart. Emotional regulation is hard. It’s hard sometimes because feelings can be strong and thoughts can hook us it. It’s hard because sometimes we get a bit stuck and need a helping hand. Take heart because you are not alone. You are in good company. For now, just breathe (see, take your time, take the long view (a blog coming on this too) and know you will get through this.

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