More threads by braveheart


Turn down the heat/coming in out of the cold - Emotional Regulation and you

One of the key things to consider when thinking about reducing or giving up self-harm is how to manage the feelings that cause you to self-harm in the first place. We are all living feeling human beings, and difficult or distressing feelings don't just go away when we decide to quit hurting ourselves because of them....

The psych-speak for managing feelings is 'Emotional Regulation'. When the internal pressure-guage is out of synch we become 'dysregulated'.

Think of having a safety stop valve in your brain that needs tune up, repair and attention. Or you can view it as a pair of scales that you are attempting to balance, achieve stability. Or maybe what works for you is seeing it like a thermometer that you 'cool down' when the emotional temperature rises higher than is comfortable. You know those fairground hammer-and-bell contraptions? What do you do when something causes the 'bell' in your brain to ring out of control? How do you regain peace and calm?

Many of us have reacted to the fear and panic caused by high emotional arousal through self-harming, or developed disordered eating behaviour in an attempt to bring some control into what feels so out of control and terrifying.

  • Feelings.
  • Emotions.
  • AngerFearHatredJealousyLossGriefHurtShameRejectionPassionSadnessEmptiness
  • ...the list could go on...
But did you know that feelings don't have to be so terrifying, that it IS possible to develop ways of managing intense feelings without needing to damage your body?

Feelings are human. Its ok to feel. There can be pleasure and relief as you slow your mind down, observe your thoughts and feelings for what they are, feel them safely, and reflect on ways of managing the situation. Calmness is achievable, and you won't need to act on impluse as much.

I know, because I have come a long way on this journey that I am still travelling. I hope that through this article I can share some of the hope, joy and pleasure of my recovery journey.

Back to basics
The foundations of emotional regulation rest in -

  • a sense of your own inner goodness - self-esteem;
  • a sense that difficult feelings won't destroy you or others; a secure inner knowledge that it is safe to feel.
We all manage our feelings in relationship to others. This process started in very early childhood, where many of our difficulties with regulating emotions began. This can come about for various reasons. The outcome in any case is that we developed ways of soothing ourselves when distressed, some healthy, some not so. The aim of this article is to help you understand new and different ways of regulating feelings without self-harming.

Being alive
It's all about learning to regulate our levels of emotional arousal, to find a level of balance between feeling over- and under- whelmed. On one hand there are feelings of emptiness, numbness and deadness, and the need to feel alive. On the other hand, when our emotional arousal becomes high, we might feel too alive, and need to calm and ease this. There is the 'up' and the 'down' and trying to find a level in between. Both states can give rise to panic, feeling dangerous for a variety of reasons personal to you, and this anxiety can shake up impulses.. (refered to as fight-flight) and can cause self-harm.

A key question we could ask is - how do we manage being alive?

Turning the tide
A first step in learning to regulate feelings could be understanding why you self-harm. Think also about your relationship with your tools, cutting itself, alcohol, or food.

Many people who self-harm feel reassured by having their {implements} with them at all times, it comforts them to know that they can relieve intense feeling states in this way.

People with anorexia may feel they gain some sense of control through restricting food intake, and bulimia may give someone the sense that they are purging unwanted emotions from their bodies.

But.....the feelings don't go away. Plus the fear of losing control can be ever present in someone who self-harms to regulate's not a real sense of may help you in the short term...but in the long term, you are still you and you still have deserve to gain the feeling of being more alive that managing your feelings safely can give...

We can learn to regulate our feelings in relationship with others and ourselves.

This is how I managed to stop self-harming. I used to hit, scratch and scrape myself. My feelings behind this were -

  • Anger at a sense that noone cared, noone would be there for me, that I was totally alone.
  • Grief over emotional losses - connected with the above, and that this was the way it had always been in my life. (People rejecting me etc..) Deep sadness.
  • To punish myself, because I believed I was a bad person, worthless and unlovable. (This links up with the wanting and needing emotional warmth, comfort, and human connection.) Repeating what bullies had done to me. ...and
  • To give visible form to my inner pain, that I believed noone could see. (To try and escape from the desperate sense of aloneness that I felt.)
My process was this -

  • Talking about my feelings in therapy. My therapist accepting my feelings, not judging my anger, rage, sorrow, pain; assuring me that my emotional pain is real and valid as a result of past traumas, and that it is safe to express it there with her. Her patience, steadiness and warmth.
  • A key turning point was a year and a half ago when I started to self-harm in therapy sessions. This was, for me, a natural development. It meant that it was no longer hidden. We could explore my feelings, reactions and impulses in context.
  • Expressing the feelings and urges that overwhelmed me in a creative form - painting, poetry, and sometimes dance.
  • Taking medication, an anti-depressant that also eases anxiety, assists in the therapeutic process of slowing my mind down enough to create a gap between the intense feeling and the impulse to self-harm, enough space for awareness and choice for alternatives, to connect with myself.
I still have feelings of anger, longing, sorrow and intense anxiety. But I am able to contain them safely now, without hurting myself. It is a relief to be able to actually feel even the difficult feelings in all their fullness, because I feel more alive and connected to myself and others. The self hatred has practically gone, too.

"What can I do? What might help me?"
In psych-speak there are two types of emotional regulation - self and interactive. Here are some ideas for both which work well for me. Remember that you can develop your own ways as well...its important to find out what works best for YOU. The following may give you someplace to start.


  • Have a long relaxing shower or bath. - Take a short nap.
  • Talk through what is stressing you with someone you trust.

  • Take some deep breaths, focusing on the out-breath.

  • Ground yourself.
  • Ask yourself how you can take care of your body now.
  • 'Reality check' with someone in the present.

  • Make a list of all those who have accepted you.
  • Hold your hand/ wrap yourself up in a blanket and hug yourself.
  • Make contact with people you trust. Or use a support forum.

  • Skip with a skipping rope. Run. Dance and stamp about. Jump up and down.
  • Or you may need to cry. Try watching a sad movie or comforting yourself by giving yourself a hug... (these work well for NUMBNESS too.)
  • Ask a trusted friend to watch out for you, figure out the warning signs together, and decide on a strategy to help keep you safe.

  • Reflect on why you really feel shame. Journal. Make connections between past and present. Express your feelings in poetry or art.
  • Look at the person you are talking to. Are they really angry with you?

  • Ask yourself "What/who do I really want?" (It might be different from what your first thought.) "Can I have it/them even in some way?"
  • Can you ask for what you want? (I'm talking about wanting something like being heard, rather than wanting things/objects.)

  • List 3 good things about yourself. Ask yourself what you have achieved today.
  • Ask a friend or family member what they like about you.
  • Do something nice for someone. - Do something nice for YOU!
And here are some affirmations I have used that can also help -

  • I am safe now. I feel frightened, but noone is going to hurt me now. Its ok.
  • It's ok to feel.
  • I have choices.
  • I feel really overwhelmed right now, but this won't last forever, this will pass.
  • I can reach out. I am not really alone.
  • I believe in myself.
All the best and good luck on your recovery journey. Let us know how things go for you!

Copyright K.H. 2006
* a sense of your own inner goodness - self-esteem;
* a sense that difficult feelings won't destroy you or others; a secure inner knowledge that it is safe to feel.
i thought this was a very good thing in the article. the feelings won't destroy you, even though they may feel like it.


Thanks for these. It seems like they're directly at me in some parts. I have issues with expressing anger especially. Somebody could spit in my face, and I wont do anything. I just leave them to feel dumb.. This actually happened to me before.


I like that. These may really help. Thank you

dasha added 696 Minutes and 28 Seconds later...

Woww! i was just going over the forum and saw my response and i didn't mean for the whole quote to reappear. sorry. it took up a lot of space. I just thought it was great?!:
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Glad to have had this article brought to my attention.
Thank you!
Great article, Braveheart! :goodpost:
And I take it that you wrote it. Congratulations!
Reminds me also of how the strategies we find helpful ourselves can be of help to each other. :)
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