Managing emotions


Being able to manage our emotions is called “emotion regulation”.   

Managing emotions includes our ability to:

  • Be aware of our emotions
  • Accept and tolerate unpleasant emotions
  • Identify specific emotions we are feeling, and tell the difference between them
  • Recognise and understand patterns in our emotional reactions
  • Manage our emotional reactions in ways that work well in the long-term

If we develop problems in managing our emotions we call this “emotional dysregulation” and it can lead to a range of different problems.

It is thought that emotional dysregulation is a big part of mental health difficulties, for example if you experience feelings of anxiety that last for long periods or if you have are dealing with the effects of traumatic experiences.  Learning to improve the way we manage our emotions can be an important first step for many people wishing to improve their mental health.


Understanding Emotions: Emotion Messages and The Emotion Triangle

The most important thing to understand about emotions is that they all have a purpose – they are designed to give us information, what we call emotion messages.

These messages are supposed to bring our attention to important things that are happening in our lives; whether it is a big event (e.g. the birth of a child), or something smaller and more day-to-day (e.g. getting a parking ticket).    For example, intense feelings of love tell us we need to care for our child. Anger about a parking ticket tells us to avoid that situation in the future.

Imagine what would happen without these messages! It’s common for people to think of emotions as “good” or “bad” or “positive” and “negative”, but that just isn’t the case.  All emotions have a helpful role to play, though they can be pleasant or unpleasant.


Basic Emotion

Emotion Message



“You are in danger!"

Walking through a dark park in the middle of the night. Start to worry about getting hurt, heart starts racing and get an urge to avoid the park.


“You are being treated unfairly!”

Someone jumps the queue in front of you at the supermarket. Start thinking how annoying and unfair it is, feel hot and tense, feel an urge to confront them.


“You have lost/missed something important!”

Failed a test. Start thinking about self as a failure and worthless, feel tired, get an urge to be alone.



“You have done something wrong!”

Think about shouting at someone when you were angry. Replay what happened in your mind, criticise yourself, feel agitated and heart racing, want to hide away

Joy /Happiness  

“You have found something important to you!”

Make a new friend that you have a lot in common with. Think about doing things together, feel motivated, an urge to make plans.


“Everything is okay!”

Lying in a sunny garden. Reflecting on how good life seems right now, feel calm and content to stay where you are for a while longer.


These emotion messages get through to us in three different ways, through –

 our body (physical sensations)

 our mind (thoughts, memories, imagination)

 our behaviour (urges and actions)

The Emotion Triangle

The Emotion Triangle

By learning to tune-in to these three sets of clues, we can better understand our emotions.



Different emotions influence our body, mind and behaviour in specific ways. 

For example, when we feel angry at someone –

 our thoughts may get stuck on what the person is doing (mind)

 we feel our heart rate increase (body) and

 we feel an urge to confront the situation (behaviour).

The anger triangle



Or when we feel sad about a friend moving away -

 we are drawn to think about what we have lost (mind)

 our bodies slow down (body)

 and we feel an urge to withdraw (behaviour).

The sadness triangle


This is very useful to know because we can learn to tune-in to our emotions better by focusing on these three areas. Think of it as a bit like being a detective – looking for clues in these three areas to figure out what we are feeling. It isn’t always easy to learn how to tune-in and identify the specific emotion(s) we are feeling, but it is something we can learn to do and get better at with practice.

The table below shows how some of our emotions affect us in the three areas.

How emotions affect us in mind, body and behaviour.









Thoughts race, imagine the worst,

mind goes blank

Sweating, heart races, muscles tense, breathing rapid.




Thoughts race, imagine the worst,

mind goes blank

Sweating, heart races, muscles tense, breathing rapid.




Thoughts slowed, think in circles,

focused on the negative

Heavy, empty, numb, tired



Critical focus on self and others’ opinion of self

Sweating, heart races, muscles tense, breathing rapid, heavy, empty, numb, tired





Thinking fast, focused on the positive




Focused on the moment

Calm and relaxed



Learning to become more aware of our emotions is important. After all, they are trying to give us messages to help us survive or get-by in life. If we don’t recognise and respond to our emotions well, they can get more intense over time. This is because the emotion is still trying to get the right message through to us.

Emotional awareness can go wrong when

 We ignore our emotions when they happen

 We try to bury them (suppression)

 We mis-identify them (e.g. we think we are angry when we are really frightened)

One big part of emotional awareness is being able to name your emotions and tell them apart.   

This is a skill called labelling and it is an important first step in managing your emotions effectively. 


emotion attention message

Learning to Manage Emotions: Understanding the Zone of Tolerance

Learning to Manage Emotions: Emotional Reactions

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