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3 evidence-based strategies to improve emotional control

Updated: Jan 5

How often do you feel that your emotions control you, rather than the other way around?


Do you find it challenging to maintain calm and react well in high-pressure situations?


Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your emotions at work or home, and wished you had better tools to manage them?


Like me, you may lack the executive function skill of emotional control. Here’s the good news: like any executive function skill, emotional control can be learned. 


In this blog, I share my journey and 3 evidence-based strategies to improve your emotional control today. 


Let’s jump in. 


My journey

As a neurodivergent adult, emotional control was not one of my strengths. I took criticism from my boss personally, causing self-doubt. Any change in plans caused anxiety, making it impossible to be flexible. Worst of all, my lack of emotional control took a toll on my loved ones. 


A few days before Christmas of 2023, while preparing for a flight to visit family, I missed a crucial detail – accounting for holiday traffic. 


This oversight led to a cascade of events: I missed my flight home, spent hundreds of dollars, and lost the chance to snowboard with a close friend I wouldn’t see for months.


Sounds like a mess, right? 


A few years ago, this would have been an emotional disaster. However, life is different now! 


Throughout 2023, I spent over 2,500 minutes in meditation. I fully attribute my ability to keep my cool and find opportunities amidst the chaos to my meditation practice.


You don't need to spend this much time to take control of your emotions -- if you can dedicate just one minute a day taking control of your emotions, you can drastically change your life.


What is emotional control? 

Emotional control is the capacity to regulate emotions in a way that helps us achieve goals, complete tasks, and guide our behavior effectively (Dawson & Gaure). 


It is an executive function skill. It can be learned and improved over time. 


Emotional control plays a key role in managing procrastination, thinking before we speak or act, and being resilient.


It also is directly related to our levels of happiness and satisfaction. A recent study by Yahyagil & Ikier found,


Emotion regulation is linked to decreased stress and higher job satisfaction.

Neurodivergent people, especially those with ADHD or autism, often struggle with this skill as their brains are wired uniquely. 


Three parts of our brain play an important role in emotional control: the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal lobe 


The amygdala controls our flight or fight response. It’s job is to keep us alive. The hippocampus communicates with the amygdala and helps us decide how to react. Lastly, the prefrontal cortex allows us to regulate our emotional response. 


Here’s how it all works: 


Imagine you awake to a sudden, crashing sound. Your amygdala determines if you should fight or run. 🏃🏽‍♀️


Before you react, your hippocampus realizes your partner or roommate is making coffee. ☕️


Finally, your prefrontal cortex tells you that everything is okay and you can go back to sleep. 😴


This happens in an instant!


How do I know if I struggle with emotional control? 

Emotional control is a skill that is fully developed in adulthood. However, some adults are better at this than others. 


Weak emotional control falls into two categories. The first requires that one seek professional help. If you have any of these challenges, consult a mental health professional immediately: 


  1. Intense anger 

  2. Anxiety that results in being physically unable to perform daily tasks 

  3. Intense unhappiness to the point that you cannot perform daily tasks 


On the other hand, many adults struggle with emotional control but still function highly. This is where executive function coaching comes in.


Which resonates with you?

  • Becoming angry or upset at small inconveniences

  • Repeated procrastination or avoidance of tasks 

  • Easily overwhelmed by high expectations

  • Negative self-talk


3 evidence-based strategies to improve emotional control

These techniques reduce activity in your amygdala and increase control of your frontal lobe. Essentially, they give yourself a chance to pause, become present, and then react appropriately. 


Like learning any new skill, remember to start small. If you want to become a runner, you shouldn’t start by running a marathon. The same goes for improving emotional control. 


No matter which technique you choose from the list, consider practicing it a few times per week to start. 


Mindful meditation  

Mindful meditation is an ancient practice. In recent years, the benefits of mindful meditation have been studied and proven. One benefit is increased emotional control. 


Over time, consistent mindful meditation increases our awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 


Remember, start small. Consider finding 1-3 minute guided meditations on YouTube, Googling “beginner guided meditation”, or downloading Headspace (my personal favorite). 


If you are looking for a quick and easy breathing technique, box breathing is your answer.


This mindful breathing technique like the one used by Navy SEALs known as box breathing. This quick and effective method can help you stay calm and centered in the face of overwhelm.


I want you to take 1 minute and try this right now — how do you feel?


How do you feel?

  • More relaxed

  • More focused

  • The same

  • More stressed



Self-talk 

Self-talk is the practice of using positive affirmations in the face of adversity. 


According to Leilani Madrigal, self-talk is used by athletes to improve their confidence and performance. The same is true for everyday people! 


When you catch yourself feeling emotionally dysregulated, you can use self-talk to bring yourself back to your emotional baseline. The key is to determine a specific phrase you will use. 


Some examples are: 


  • 'I can do this'

  • 'I am doing my best, and that's enough'

  • 'Pause and take a breath. I am in control of my emotions' 


Environment 

When it comes to improving executive function skills, environment is everything.


Pay attention to what types of environments trigger your emotions. Next, determine ways to modify your environment. 


If you are triggered by small inconveniences, consider going outside during your lunch break for a short walk or finding a quiet space at home where you can decompress. 


If you cannot focus and become overwhelmed in loud environments, work in quiet spaces at home or in the office. 


If clutter causes overwhelm, create a home and workspace that is clutter-free. 


How does executive function coaching help with emotional control? 

Engaging with an adult executive function coach opens up avenues to significantly bolster your emotional control skills. 


These coaches are adept at helping you pinpoint the specific triggers that lead to emotional imbalance. Once these triggers are identified, your coach collaborates with you to establish a clear, attainable goal, breaking it down into manageable steps for easier navigation.


white male with long, dark hair, standing in front of a green background, wearing a black jacket

Your coach then assists in creating a tailored action plan. This includes setting a timeline for achieving your goal, identifying potential hurdles, and brainstorming effective strategies to overcome these obstacles.


Think of your executive function coach as your personal guide. They stand by you throughout the process, providing timely reminders, ensuring you stay on course, and celebrating your successes along the way. 


This partnership is a cornerstone in building stronger emotional control skills.


Conclusion

Mastering emotional control is a journey unique to each individual, but it's a path worth traveling. Whether you're neurodivergent or simply seeking to enhance your emotional resilience, the techniques of mindful meditation, positive self-talk, and optimizing your environment can be transformative.


Small, consistent steps lead to significant changes. By incorporating these practices into your daily routine, you can gradually increase your emotional awareness and regulation.


If you find these challenges resonate with you, consider the value of an executive function coach. Such a coach can provide personalized guidance and support, helping you to identify triggers, set realistic goals, and develop effective strategies for managing your emotions. This partnership can be a vital component in your journey toward improved emotional control.


Your emotions are a powerful aspect of who you are, but they don't have to dictate your actions or your life. With patience, practice, and perhaps a helping hand, you can gain greater control over them and move towards a more balanced, fulfilling life.



Stay engaged


About the author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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