Hacking Your Executive Function Part 1: Emotion Regulation Definitions and Basics

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Fun life updates! I’m currently working on a book about executive functioning, and because of the time commitment I’m struggling to blog as much as I’d like. So instead of trying to do both, I’m going to combine them into one super writing THING that hopefully will help me continue writing regularly while also developing the ideas I want for my book. Boom.

I’m going to start this week by giving you an overview of the tips and tricks that I use for emotion regulation. What does that have to do with executive functioning? Well executive functioning is all the skills we use to plan and organize ourselves and the world around us, which includes our emotions. That means that understanding and regulating our emotions is actually a major part of executive functioning. I’ve encountered a few people who push back on the idea that it falls into the same category as planning and organization or time management, but it actually relies on many of the same skills.

First a quick definition. This one is fairly easy and self explanatory: emotion regulation is the ability to regulate your own emotions. Every day we have emotions and have to learn how to respond to them, how to manage them, and how to cope with difficult situations. Some of our responses are healthy and others are not. We’re going to be focused on healthy emotion regulation.

Emotion regulation is important in its own right: it’s exhausting, time consuming, and sometimes downright dangerous to use unhealthy coping mechanisms (see: drug or alcohol abuse, impulsive behavior, self harm, eating disorders). Always having your emotions at an extremely high level, or pushing them away and never feeling them at all takes a lot of energy and is honestly just deeply unpleasant. But in addition to that, emotion regulation is a really important base for a lot of other executive functioning skills. It’s very hard to effectively plan and organize your day, to do your work, to focus on a task, or to keep track of time if you’re overwhelmed with sadness. Keeping your emotions at a level that feels reasonable to you and that doesn’t keep you from achieving your other goals is an important purpose for emotion regulation.

This week I’ll be sharing a series of posts about ways to do emotion regulation, so for today’s post I’m going to stick to some of the very, very basics. These are Olivia’s hottest of hot tips, the easiest ways to keep your emotions reasonably stable, or at least to give yourself a leg up at keeping your emotions stable. If someone asks me “Olivia, I feel like poop/I can’t focus/I can’t manage my sensory input/there’s something about my brain that feels bad and I don’t like it” this is literally always the first thing that I tell them.

Your body affects your brain.

Seems obvious, but sometimes we forget that when our bodies feel like poop our emotions tend to feel like poop. So if you want a strong base for your emotions, do the very simple, very basic things that will help your body feel reasonably good and healthy.

-Eat food on a regular basis, and have some vegetables sometimes. You don’t have to have a perfect diet but definitely make sure you’re getting in a couple good meals a day and that you’re not ONLY eating sugar or snacks.

-Sleep enough. Whatever that means to you. Prioritize it. It’s not exciting or fun, but without it nothing will be exciting or fun.

-Move your body. You don’t have to be an exercise freak or super fit, but go for a dang walk a few times a week, or find something that you enjoy that gets you standing up and moving around. Bonus points if you can go outside when you do it.

-Take medications as prescribed. If you’ve got brain meds this is obvious, but taking meds for physical ailments is also super important because physical pain and discomfort really makes a person cranky (what a surprise). I’ll also add that something to pay attention to here is alcohol or recreational drugs. I’m not going to say never ever use either of those things, but be highly aware of how you’re using them and how often.

-If you’re sick take care of yourself. Go to the doctor, rest, fluids, blah blah blah. But don’t try to push through illness for no reason (I say this as I’m working while trying to ignore a cold, so I understand that this is easier said than done).

Even if you do nothing else that anyone ever recommends for keeping your emotions regulated, these things will bring that base level of stability up and give you more energy to deal with emotions. It turns out that being super hungry affects your mood, or never getting enough sleep can make you really crabby, or sitting for hours and hours at a time can leave you feeling depressed. Mind blowing, I know.

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