Emotions Come and Go in Waves. We Can Teach Our Students How to Surf Them.

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

Emotions Come and Go in Waves. We Can Teach Our Students How to Surf Them.

Two education researchers lay out the pros and cons of eight different emotion regulation strategies.

By Zi Jia Ng and Jennifer Seibyl     Oct 6, 2022

Emotions Come and Go in Waves. We Can Teach Our Students How to Surf Them.

This article is part of the collection: Making Sense of K-12 Student Mental Health.

Imagine 9-year-old Alejandra who listens quietly for gun shots in the hall after seeing the news about the Uvalde school shooting. Her teacher notices she has difficulty staying focused in class.

Or imagine 14-year-old Kai whose mother is suffering from the lingering effects of coronavirus. Formerly a fun-loving and outgoing student, he keeps to himself these days and his grades have dropped.

Or 17-year-old Jayden who is suspended from school after being involved in a fight. He feels an overwhelming sense of unfairness when his white peers who were involved only got detention.

Can you imagine what it might feel like to be pummeled by an ocean wave while attempting to surf? Scraping against the sand, water shooting up your nose, feeling completely at the mercy of the gigantic expanse of sea in front of you?

Emotions are like waves. They come and go. Some are big, while others are small. Sometimes, we ride the waves like a pro. Sometimes, we dive headfirst into the waves. But other times, we are swept away, completely overtaken by the force of the undertow.

When we are flooded with emotions, we may burst into tears, shut down or even lash out at others. Many of us struggle with our emotions. Like a tidal wave that cannot be surfed, emotions can become overwhelming when they are too intense, enduring or not appropriate for the situation we are in.

“Just stop worrying!”

“Don’t be sad!”

“There is no need for you to be angry!”

Has anyone ever told you not to feel an emotion?

Try as we might, we cannot stop the waves of emotions from coming. Research shows that we experience at least one emotion 90 percent of the time. And there is no shortage of events that spark strong emotional reactions these days, whether it be from the record-high school shootings, the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, or the disastrous Hurricane Ian.

Even if we could, it is not a good idea to switch off our emotions because they provide important cues and information about ourselves and the world around us.

So we can’t and shouldn’t stop the waves. What do we do instead? We can learn how to surf those waves by using different strategies to better regulate our emotions.

Emotion regulation, however, is complex. There is no one right way to manage emotions because every strategy has its own strengths and weaknesses. No one strategy is helpful for every person or in every situation.

Has anyone told you to “take a deep breath” or “look for the silver lining” when you are upset? Did that help every time? It is a myth that certain strategies are universally helpful or entirely harmful. There is no one-size-fits-all panacea to emotion regulation.

Current research on emotion regulation focuses on when and for whom certain strategies are helpful. The helpfulness of emotion regulation strategies is shaped by the people managing those emotions and the situations in which those emotions are experienced. We may go over the waves with a float when we feel tired. Or we may swim under it with a pair of goggles when the waves are small. Thus it is important to build a wide repertoire of strategies.

We should teach and encourage our students to consider their emotional experiences and use different emotion regulation strategies, individually or in combination, in school to enhance their mental health and academic success.

Based on a literature review of current emotion regulation research, we provide the pros and cons of eight different emotion regulation strategies below.

Avoidance/escape as emotion regulation

Avoidance/escape is avoiding or removing yourself from an emotional situation.

  • Pro: It physically distances you from emotional situations and prevents harm. Think about 13-year-old William who walks in another direction when he sees the school bully.
  • Con: Avoidance/escape does not build self-efficacy in coping with emotional situations and leads to a restricted lifestyle in the long term. Many parts of the school may become off limits to William if he continues to steer clear of the bully.
Distraction as emotion regulation

Distraction is diverting your attention away from an emotional situation.

  • Pro: It mentally disengages you from emotional situations and provides immediate relief. Think about 8-year-old Joon who looks out of the window during a lesson he feels bored about.
  • Con: Distraction hinders processing of emotional situations and leads to avoidance in the long term. Joon may miss something important about the lesson if he continues looking out of the window.
Emotional support as emotion regulation

Emotional support is reaching out to others for comfort and support.

  • Pro: It taps into your support systems and provides emotional validation. Think about 16-year-old Jamal who texts his parents and friends after a breakup.
  • Con: Emotional support depends on the availability and adequacy of support systems. Jamal may not receive any response or may receive a reply that says, “Just get over it.”
Acceptance as emotion regulation

Acceptance is letting yourself feel an emotion.

  • Pro: It increases tolerance of negative emotions, which serve important functions despite their unpleasantness (e.g. fear alerts us to danger, anger alerts us to injustice). Think about 7-year-old Mira who allows herself to feel nervous before her first school play as it is a natural response to a new experience.
  • Con: Acceptance may not be helpful when emotions run high. Mira may feel so anxious that she forgets her lines on stage.
Problem-solving as emotion regulation

Problem-solving is taking action to change an emotional situation.

  • Pro: It builds self-efficacy in coping with emotional situations and prevents them from recurring. Think about 6-year-old Lynette who asks for a change in her seating position because the classmate sitting next to her keeps copying her school work.
  • Con: Problem-solving is counterproductive in situations outside your control. Lynette may not be able to change her classmate’s behavior.
Reframing as emotion regulation

Reframing is changing the way you think about an emotional situation.

  • Pro: It reinterprets emotional situations outside your control or influenced by subjective perceptions. Think about 12-year-old Gabriela who reframes a classmate’s hurtful comments as them having a bad day rather than internalizing the offensive name they called her.
  • Con: Reframing is counterproductive in situations that can and should be changed. Gabriela may be a victim of school bullying.
Repetitive thinking as emotion regulation

Repetitive thinking is thinking about an emotional situation over and over again.

  • Pro: It supports reflection of emotional situations in the short term, especially for those who suppress uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Think about 15-year-old Jose who reflects on his team’s loss at the quarterfinals.
  • Con: Repetitive thinking is counterproductive in the long term. Jose may dwell on his team’s loss for days and not return to team practice.
Relaxation as emotion regulation

Relaxation means releasing bodily tension that occurs in reaction to an emotional situation.

  • Pro: It calms your overactive nervous system and enhances cognitive processing. Think about 10-year-old Aaliyah who takes some deep breaths before taking the quiz she feels anxious about.
  • Con: Relaxation is counterproductive when done improperly. Aaliyah may hyperventilate if she unintentionally takes fast, deep breaths instead of slow, deep breaths (i.e. overbreathing).
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