Reflect on your concept of emotion regulation and its application in your life. Emotion regulation encompasses our ability to manage our emotional states. Although we might not have influence over our immediate emotional responses to every situation, we can dictate our reactions and coping mechanisms when faced with various emotions. Keep reading to learn 10 emotional regulation activities to do with your therapy clients.
Emotion regulation is an important life skill for each of us. Think about your automatic responses to psychological distress; Can you think of your go-to coping skills? Maybe you try taking a deep breath, counting, or using grounding skills. Perhaps your use of coping skills requires little thought because you’re a master of emotion regulation skills in your own life.
As humans, we experience a wide range of emotions. Some emotions are enjoyable, while others are uncomfortable and make us feel vulnerable. Regulating emotions effectively allows us to respond to different situations and stressors we experience. Emotion regulation skills can also help us express our emotions as we experience them with those around us.
Emotion regulation skills are something that we often begin learning about at a young age, and continue developing as we age. Individuals who are surrounded by adults who can cope with distress, often have the upper hand with this because they can learn effective skills from observing others around them. Those who are not raised in an environment where healthy coping is modeled may find that they have a challenging time responding to various emotions as they age.
Individuals who do not have strong emotion regulation skills may find themselves acting in ways that they regret when they are emotionally charged. This can include acting out or saying things that they wish they hadn’t. Additionally, there is a difference between individuals who know about healthy coping skills and those who apply healthy coping skills to their lives. For these folks, your clinical work may include exploring barriers that keep them from applying their knowledge to their everyday life.
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Therapy for Emotional Regulation
Emotion regulation skills are something that every individual can benefit from working on. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is an example of a therapeutic approach that incorporates emotion regulation skills into therapy. Emotion regulation is one of the four skills groups that is included in DBT. DBT is an effective approach for individuals who are living with personality disorders, especially those with borderline personality disorder.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is another example of a therapeutic approach that incorporates emotion regulation skills into therapy sessions. With ACT, clients are encouraged to experience their internal thoughts and emotions without trying to avoid them. This is done with the use of healthy coping skills to manage their internal thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness practices are often introduced with both DBT and ACT sessions, or on their own. Effective use of mindfulness practices can help clients gain awareness and develop a tolerance for their emotional experiences. Mindfulness practices encourage clients to be aware of their experiences without judgment and avoidance.
Emotion regulation skills can be an effective treatment goal for clients who are living with various mental health concerns and difficulties, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Depressive disorders
- Moodiness and irritability
- Personality disorders
- Trauma-related disorders including PTSD
Emotional Regulation Activities
Emotion regulation exercises can be used in various treatment settings, including individual therapy, group therapy, dual-diagnosis treatment, psychoeducation sessions, and specialized treatment groups. Emotion regulation activities can help clients gain awareness of their emotional experiences and explore healthy coping skills that they can apply to their lives outside of therapy sessions. Continue reading for our list of emotion regulation activities that you can utilize!
- Provide your client, or group, with paper and pens, and ask them to take a few moments to agree or disagree with the statement: “Negative emotions are bad”.
After some time, come back together and engage in an open discussion that explores both sides of this question and any experiences or evidence your client, or group members, have to support their position.
When you are wrapping up your emotion regulation activity, talk about how there are no “bad” emotions and that we all experience a range of emotions as human beings. Some are uncomfortable and harder than others, and using proper coping skills can help us keep ourselves in check when we are struggling.
- Sometimes finding the words to describe emotional experiences is challenging. One approach that can help clients find a different way to express their experiences with various emotions is to draw.
Provide your client, or group, with a handout that includes a large pie chart. In each area of the pie chart, write a different emotion. Ask your client to draw what comes to mind for the provided emotions. With vague directions, they have the opportunity to identify triggers, challenges, and other aspects of their emotional experiences. Examples of emotions you can use include anger, sadness, hopelessness, happiness, joy, fear, loneliness, self-criticism, guilt, shame, and rejection. Allow time for your client to share their drawings and explore their emotional experiences.
- Spend time exploring your client, or group’s, understanding of mindfulness. Once you know where their level of understanding is, take time to fill in any gaps and address any misconceptions.
Spend time reviewing different mindfulness practices and allow for time to practice a mindfulness exercise. Allow for time to process your client’s experience and if they feel they may benefit from mindfulness.
- Ask your client, or group members, to identify their top 3 challenging emotions. Ask them to describe what makes these emotions challenging. Do they have any triggers? How do these emotions affect their behaviors? Do they feel in control when they feel this way? Has anything helped in the past to cope? What hasn’t worked for them?
If this is being done in a group session, you can the group members if they picked up on any shared experiences among each other and if they have learned something that they could try using themselves.
- Provide your client with paper and writing utensils. To begin, ask them to identify an emotion that they struggled with recently. Ask them to list details from their experience, such as:
- The trigger
- How their thoughts changed
- Did they tense up in the body
- What physical changes did they have
- Did they try to avoid or minimize their experience
- Did they try to cover up the emotion with one that feels “safer”
- Is there anything they see now that may have been a more effective response to their trigger?
In summary, ask your client if this brought anything new to light for them, and discuss healthy coping skills that they could try using in a similar situation.
- Research suggests that self-compassion may improve mental health by promoting emotion regulation. Spend time exploring your client’s, or group members’, understanding of self-compassion, and how they show themselves compassion.
Ask your client to think of a recent experience where they could have shown themselves kindness when they may have been a bit hard on themselves. How might this change have impacted the situation? Would it have been better?
- If you find that you enjoy using worksheets in your clinical work, TherapyPatron offers an Emotion Regulation Worksheet Bundle that includes 5 different emotion regulation exercises that are commonly used in DBT sessions.
- Introduce your client to box breathing. Begin by asking them to get comfortable in their seat, and encourage them to close their eyes, or find a spot in front of them that they can focus on. Walk your client through the following steps:
- Breath in as you count to four, notice how your breath fills your lungs
- Now hold your breath for 4 seconds, trying not to inhale or exhale
- Slowly let your breath leave through your mouth as you count to four
- Hold your breath again for another 4 seconds
When you have walked through this exercise with your client, spend time exploring situations where this could be an effective emotion regulation skill. Clients can repeat the steps as much as they need until they find themselves centered.
- Journaling can be an effective emotional regulation activity for clients of all ages. Writing can provide clients with an opportunity to get their thoughts on paper, process earlier events of the day, and make notes of their takeaways from earlier experiences. Additionally, journaling exercises can be a powerful reminder of challenging times that they have overcome when they find themselves struggling. Clients can choose the traditional route and use paper and pen, or they can create notes on their phone if they would like privacy for their entries. You can invite your client to bring their writing into later sessions to review.
- Spend time reviewing the mind-body connection with your client, and explore their emotional experiences when they take care of themselves, versus when they are not meeting their physical needs. Basic needs include getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, getting exercise, avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol, and seeing a doctor when sick. Review the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired), and encourage your client to use this as a check-in when they find themselves feeling emotionally charged.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Emotional Regulation Activities
Thank you for reading this resource on 10 emotional regulation activities you can do with your clients in therapy. Emotion regulation activities can be a great tool for clients of all ages. They can be an interactive and enjoyable way to introduce new coping skills and strategies that can help clients change the intensity, or duration, of an emotion that they are experiencing.
In addition to working on developing an awareness of their emotions, having clients pay attention to their thoughts before and after experiencing emotional experiences can help us determine what aspects of emotion regulation would be beneficial to work on.
Thank you for taking the time to read our post about emotion regulation activities! If you are interested in learning more about incorporating emotion regulation skills into your clinical work, we encourage you to look for training and continuing education opportunities near you!
TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.
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- Rolston, Abigail, and Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson. What is emotion regulation and how do we do? – Cornell University. Accessed December 14, 2023. https://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf
- Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021156
- Menefee, D. S., Ledoux, T., & Johnston, C. A. (2022). The Importance of Emotional Regulation in Mental Health. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 16(1), 28–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/15598276211049771
- Inwood, E. & Ferrari, M. (2018). Mechanisms of change in the relationship between self-compassion, emotion regulation, and mental health: A systematic review. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Inwood2018.pdf