Learning to Manage Emotions

Emotional Reactions

Basically, emotional reactions are the things that trigger the emotions we feel, the emotion itself, and our usual ways of responding. The figure below shows the different parts of an emotional reaction.

Emotional reactions graphic

You can use a Trigger Log (see Coping tools below) to monitor all the important parts of an emotional reaction. These are:

  1. The trigger: which is always there (even if it is hard to recognise) and can be just about anything.
  2. The emotion: It is good to be as specific as you can about what emotions you feel, and to work on only one emotion (usually the strongest one) at a time.
  3. The Autopilot Reaction: This is whatever you usually do (often automatically or subconsciously) when you feel this emotion.

We call them autopilot reactions because they are usually automatic, subconscious ways of reacting that are difficult to control.  They tend to work in the short term but can cause their own problems in the long term.

For example, many people use self-harm (when they feel too much or not enough of an emotion) as a way of getting back in the zone.  Other people can become impulsive and react without thinking it through (e.g. getting aggressive when angered, or over-spending to manage sadness).  In both cases, this might work at the time, but in the long term it may not help us to improve how we feel or improve the situations that made us feel that way. In fact, it may make the problem worse.

It is important to recognise that most people only get stuck in emotional reactions that have worked for them in some way, at some point, in the past.  Learning to recognise the emotional reactions that don’t work well for you now, is very important.  Once we have a better awareness of our emotional reactions then we can start to think about changing them.


How to change emotional reactions and manage emotions in healthy ways

In order to think about how we can be better at managing emotions, we need to think about why we want to do that.  It is important to be clear about which emotional reaction you want to focus on changing.  To do this, it can be helpful to think about how easily these might be changed and the reasons for changing them (or consequences of not changing them).  When you start to work on changing an emotional reaction, remember to focus on only one reaction at a time.  Once this is clear, there are a few stages to think about that can help us to change emotional reactions.


Stage 1: Increase awareness of emotional reactions and being in the Zone

The goal of stage 1 is to increase your awareness of emotional reactions and to learn when you are in or out of the zone of tolerance.

 Learning about emotional acceptance and emotional tolerance and trying to practice this.

 Keeping a Trigger Log is very helpful - It’s a bit like a diary that helps you to focus on important emotional reactions.

 Learning to label your emotions is another essential part of managing emotional reactions. Just doing this alone can reduce the intensity of unpleasant emotions.  The Emotions Sheet in the Coping tools section below can help you to figure out what you might be feeling.

 Finally, another important thing to consider in this stage is reducing your emotional vulnerability (the things that put you near the edge of the zone).  This could be things like life stresses, not getting enough sleep, an unhealthy diet or not enough exercise.  If these aren’t dealt with then it can make it more likely that an emotional reaction will take us out of the zone.

At the end of stage 1 you should be able to recognise the trigger, emotions and autopilot reactions that are taking you out of the zone, and have an idea of how you would like them to change.


Stage 2: Using different resources to help change reactions

Stage 2 is about trying out different ways of managing your reactions to different emotions.  There are many different ‘tools’ you can try - some will work better for you than others.  It is important to be proactive and have clear goals. 

To learn new ways of responding to emotions, you have to trigger this emotion yourself, and then practice the new skill.   It is usually not effective just to wait until something triggers an emotional reaction unexpectedly, and then hope that you’ll remember to use a new skill!

The Trigger Experiment Sheet in the Coping tools section below can be a great help to plan this. Once you start to think about a trigger experiment, you will need to think about what new resources (response) might help in that situation.

The list below directs you to different resources for body, mind and behaviour. They are just suggestions, and you may find other resources that work better for you. It is useful to remember though, that you will need resources to help you when your emotions are too intense (hyperarousal) or cut-off (hypoarousal).

The My Zone of Tolerance Sheet can be a way to record what works for you.  It and other coping tools can be found in the Self Help and Coping tools section below.

Body: Deep Breathing, Grounding, Relaxation exercises

Mind: Distraction, Questioning Emotions, Safe Space Imagery

Behaviour: Trigger management, Planning your activities

At the end of stage 2 you should be having success with using alternative resources that help you to stay in the zone with your emotions, and respond in ways that work better for you.


Stage 3: Strengthening Healthy Reactions and Expanding your Zone of Tolerance

Stage 3 is all about strengthening your new responses so they become new ‘autopilot reactions’.   Do this by continuing to use them until they feel as natural as your old ones did.   This will take time and may also take some effort.   However, remember that we are all ‘works in progress’, nobody copes with their emotions perfectly!  Everyone comes out of the zone sometimes!

With experience, your practice will help to expand your Zone of Tolerance.  This will mean that you will find yourself able to manage more challenging situations, and do things that you might never have thought possible before!


The above information and that on the Emotion regulation and Zone of Tolerance pages can be downloaded here - Emotional Regulation:Managing Emotions

Trigger Log

The Emotions Sheet 

The Trigger Experiment Sheet

My Zone of Tolerance Sheet



Safe Space Imagery

Questioning emotions

Controlled breathing

Progressive muscular relaxation