Fostering Emotional Regulation and Growth Through Residential Mental Health Treatment

Emotional regulation is an essential life skill that helps you navigate your inner emotional landscape as well as your relationships with other people. The origins of emotional regulation are found in childhood, but family dysfunction and mental illness can profoundly disrupt your ability to successfully manage your feelings as an adult. By developing and practicing emotional regulation skills in the context of a long-term mental health treatment program, people with severe mental health disorders can gain the ability to successfully modulate emotional experiences and create more fulfilling lives.

But successful emotional function doesn’t depend simply on having authentic experiences of emotions. Rather, we must continuously regulate our emotions in order to optimize functionality and live internally and externally harmonious lives. “Most of us use a variety of emotion regulation strategies and are able to apply them to different situations in order to adapt to the demands of our environment,” writes Abigail Rolston and Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Of course, this process isn’t always easy.

Emotional regulation is a skill, one that we must continuously hone throughout our lives. It is also something most people struggle with to various degrees; rare is the person who is entirely successful at managing their emotions perfectly all of the time. But for people living with serious mental illness, emotional regulation can be particularly challenging—even when the illness itself has been ostensibly treated—and can continue to negatively impact your life long after your primary psychiatric symptoms have dissipated. As such, learning how to modulate your emotional state is an essential component of truly successful mental health treatment programs.

The Origins of Emotional Regulation

The process of learning how to regulate your emotions typically begins in early childhood, as children learn to recognize their own feelings and the feelings of others. “A child’s increasing ability to ‘regulate’ her emotions—to express her feelings in constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful ways—is now recognized as a critical factor in children’s psychological health,” says Dr. Kenneth Barish, Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College at Cornell University. Indeed, research suggests that children who are able to successfully regulate their emotions “are better able to resolve conflicts with their peers and show lower levels of psychological stress” while also being “more caring toward others.”

An essential piece of understanding emotional regulation is recognizing that it isn’t just another term for anger management or suppressing of negative emotions. It’s about experiencing emotions in non-destructive ways. “Emotional regulation means being able to think constructively about how to cope with feelings. We want children to have feelings, but not be overwhelmed by them,” Dr. Barish continues.

In my experience, children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her feelings and concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent.

Of course, many people do not grow up in environments in which they feel heard, their emotions are valued, or they are able to observe healthy emotional regulation in others. When combined with the emotional dysfunction inherent to mental health disorders, the result is often a profound inability to successfully navigate your emotional landscape and modulate feelings in a productive way, stunting emotional growth and causing significant functional challenges continuing into adulthood.

Developing Emotional Regulation Skills

Luckily, the opportunity to develop emotional regulation skills isn’t confined to childhood. Adults, even those with serious mental illness, can learn to successfully manage emotions and increase emotional agility throughout their lives. Learning and practicing these skills is invaluable, both in the midst of psychiatric crisis and after psychiatric stability has been achieved. These skills include:

  • Identifying Your Emotions: This may seem like an easy thing, but many people don’t know exactly which emotion they are experiencing, particularly if they grew up in environments in which certain emotions were not tolerated. Are you angry or are you ashamed? Are you anxious or are you sad? Identifying your emotions is the first step toward understanding what you are feeling and how to take control of that feeling.
  • Identifying Others’ Emotions: Learning how to read others is essential to emotional regulation. Without understanding how someone else is feeling, you cannot properly formulate a reality-based response and may react in an inappropriate way. If you’re not sure what someone is feeling, ask.
  • Tolerating Distress: Emotional regulation doesn’t mean feeling happy or okay all the time; after all, the world of emotions is vast. It is normal to feel anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and sadness at times. Allowing yourself to feel these things without catastrophizing the experience is vital to learning how to have a healthy relationship with yourself and others.
  • Communicating Your Feelings: Expressing your emotions, even difficult ones, is an important part of forming and maintaining meaningful relationships and fostering emotional growth. For people who grew up in families or have had relationships in which emotional communication was discouraged, this can be difficult and even frightening, but honestly talking about what you are experiencing is necessary in order to connect with others and have your emotional needs understood and met.
  • Soothing Yourself: Developing strategies to comfort yourself in the presence of distressing emotions or situations is an invaluable skill that can foster self-reliance and confidence. It also decreases the likelihood that you will turn to unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-injury, in order to cope with difficult experiences.
  • Nourishing Positive Emotions: Emotional regulation isn’t just about managing negative emotions, but about creating opportunities for positive ones. Plan activities that bring you joy, engage in relationships that fulfill you, relish in the experiences that make you feel alive.

Developing emotional regulation skills doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions, but using them in a way that benefits you and helps you create a more stable, fulfilling life. As Dr. Amelia Aldao, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says, “[E]motions have great potential for helping us navigate the environment. We just have to experience them at a level that is most optimal in each context.”

Practicing Emotional Regulation in Long-Term Mental Health Treatment

Knowing what emotional regulation looks like in theory and implementing it in practice are, of course, very different things. Having someone explain how to regulate your emotions may be the first step toward developing emotional regulation, but true transformation only happens by gradually replacing damaging emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns with healthy alternatives. As such, the best way to develop these skills is in a structured, supportive environment in which you have continuous opportunities to work through the challenges of emotional regulation until these skills become second nature.

People who come to mental health treatment programs are struggling with profound emotional upheaval as a product of their illnesses. As such, most programs focus primarily on immediate and short-term psychiatric stabilization, rather than long-term skill building. Long-term residential mental health programs, however, offer clients the time and space necessary to focus on holistic healing and restoration of overall functioning, including the development of strong emotional regulation skills. This is particularly true of treatment environments that take a milieu therapy approach, allowing your everyday interactions to function as therapeutic interventions.

Within the context of these programs, you can learn invaluable emotional regulation skills via a variety of therapeutic modalities. You can then implement these skills on an ongoing basis while benefitting from the immediate feedback of highly skilled clinicians and compassionate peers. Through practice, you can learn to fully integrate healthy emotional regulation in your everyday life in a way that creates lasting change and fosters meaningful emotional growth. In doing so, you develop a strong foundation for wellness that extends far beyond your time in residential care and to which you can turn throughout your life in order to cope with the challenges ahead.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive, long-term residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.