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Relaxation: learning to regulate your emotions


Relaxation: learning to regulate your emotions

Authors: Joy ANSALDO, neuropsychologist, and Sabine AUBRIL and Adrien CHAUVET, psychiatric nurses
UPPM "La Roseraie” (Medical Psychiatry and Psychology Unit)

As children, we learned to talk, walk, read, and write. That learning process saw our brains develop as we gained new skills and knowledge. Long thought to be innate, emotional regulation only very recently started to be taught in certain primary schools. Yet emotions are an integral part of our daily existence, from birth through to the very end of our lives.

What exactly is an “emotion”?
Neuroscientists have been studying emotions for some years, to find a broadly consensual definition (1). Emotions occur in response to the environment (stimulus) which produces chemical reactions in the body (nervous and endocrine systems). These chemical reactions have a variety of effects. They may induce feelings of pleasure or discomfort. They may influence our memory, attention, or other cognitive processes. They may cause physiological sensations (accelerated heart rate, increased body temperature, sweating, flushing, lacrimation, etc.). And they may lead to behaviour intended to express these internal feelings or sensations externally.
Just like reading and writing, regulating our emotions is something we can learn. In order to regulate our emotions, we must first identify and describe them, attribute a degree of intensity to them, and express them. Some people are simply not capable of doing this. They are said to have a condition known as alexithymia (2). Similarly, some people are unable to recognise facial expressions that signify emotions. These include those with schizophrenia or autism spectrum disorders (3).


Emotional dysregulation
Generally speaking, emotions appear very fast, and dissipate fairly rapidly. However, when an emotion persists, problems can occur. For example, if stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety disorders (panic attacks), while feeling sad every day may lead to depression. Some people may suffer from emotional dysregulation, resulting in exaggerated sensitivity to stimuli, and more intense emotions that occur more frequently and last longer. Those with emotional dysregulation are commonly referred to as being “hypersensitive” or having “high emotional potential”, two expressions which, despite their popularity, have no scientific basis. They are described in general terms and are applicable to anyone, making them easier to identify with. On Emotional dysregulation, on the other hand, is a genuine symptom, that is notably found in individuals suffering from psychological trauma, insomnia, attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, autism spectrum disorders, or bipolar disorder.


Regulating intrusive emotions
To begin with, you should ideally distance yourself from the stimulus that triggered the emotion, for example by taking some time out for yourself, going for a walk in the countryside, playing sport, going to the cinema, etc.
Next, if the emotion persists or occurs frequently, it may be beneficial to note the events that cause this emotion and assign them an intensity ranging from 0 (no emotion) up to 10 (very strong emotion). This will enable you to take a step back and put the feelings in perspective.
Finally, there are relaxation techniques that can help to regulate emotions and the sensations they generate. The basis for relaxation is controlled breathing, a tangible physiological process that allows you to focus on the present moment, rather than on past or future events.
Before trying the different breathing techniques, you must first ‘prepare the ground’ by ensuring the right conditions for relaxation: you should be in a calm environment where you will not be disturbed, turn off your phone, and be lying down or sitting comfortably. You may have music on, provided it is soft, there are no words, and the volume is low.


Cardiac coherence
Cardiac coherence is a breathing exercise that involves completing six breathing cycles per minute for five minutes, at least three times each day. This practice allows you to synchronise your heart rate variability with your respiration, by acting on the parasympathetic nervous system (autonomic nervous system) which slows the heartbeat. When practised daily, cardiac coherence provides numerous physiological benefits (4) such as:
- Lowering levels of cortisol (a hormone secreted in response to stress);
- Preventing anxiety and depression by acting on dopamine and serotonin (neurotransmitters that play a role in feelings of pleasure and happiness);
- Raising levels of oxytocin (a ‘social’ hormone that generates feelings of pleasure in the company of others);
- Raising alpha waves which stimulate learning and memorisation; 
- Lowering blood pressure (preventing cardiovascular disease).
There are apps that can help with this process, such as Respirelax© or Petit Bambou©.

Autogenic training
Devised by J.H. Schultz (5), this technique is based on self-hypnosis and is most commonly used for people suffering from generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia.
Initially, it involves focusing attention on bodily sensations such as heaviness or warmth, facilitated by verbal self-suggestion. The idea is that anxious individuals tend to focus on unpleasant physical feelings (heat, sweating, needles and pins, etc.), which in turn exacerbates their anxiety and can lead to panic attacks. The aim is therefore to associate certain bodily sensations with calmer feelings. For example, associating the sensation of heaviness with falling asleep, rather than with a feeling of oppression.
The next step in the process is to visualise a peaceful, refreshing place. It can be a real or imaginary place. The idea is to associate physical relaxation with the mental image, to strengthen the relaxing effects.


Jacobson’s (6) progressive relaxation 
This is the founding method of physiological relaxation exercises (which are grouped together under the heading “dynamic relaxation”). The basic principle is that any kind of mental tension will always cause muscle tension. This means that if a person’s muscles are relaxed, they cannot be anxious. In practice, the person begins by focusing on their body and being aware of their muscles and any tightness in them, in order to understand their current state and the connection between physical and mental tension. Next, they create bodily tension by tightening and then relaxing certain muscles, to feel the difference between the two and generate a sensation of peace.

In conclusion...
Learning to regulate our emotions also means learning to adapt, to be flexible in the face of change and the difficulties we encounter throughout our lives, as shown by the current pandemic. Above all, learning to regulate our emotions is a way of preventing the risk of anxiety or depressive disorders.
Anyone can be affected by emotional dysregulation, whether acutely in response to a particular event, or as part of a wider problem. If you are suffering from invasive and persistent emotions, you should see a healthcare professional who will be able to assess your requirements, such as your GP or a psychologist.
For more information, you can contact “La Roseraie” Medical Psychiatry and Psychology Unit on +377 98 98 44 20 (7 bis Avenue des Ligures, 98000 Monaco).
Sources cited:
(1) Kleinginna, P. R., & Kleinginna, A. M. (1981). A categorized list of emotion definitions, with suggestions for a consensual definition. Motivation and emotion, 5(4), 345-379.
(2) Berthoz, S. (2004). L’alexithymie ou le silence des émotions. Cerveau et psycho n°6. June 2004
(3) Le Gall, E., & Iakimova, G. (2018). Cognition sociale dans la schizophrénie et les troubles du spectre de l’autisme: points de convergences et différences fonctionnelles. L'Encéphale, 44(6), 523-537.
(4) Monié, B. (2018). 27. Cohérence cardiaque. Dans : , Thérapies comportementales et cognitives: En 37 notions (pp. 249-254). Paris: Dunod.
(5) Baste, N. (2020). Le training autogène de Schultz, sa théorie, son histoire, sa pratique. La Revue de l'hypnose et de la santé, 11(2), 92-97.
(6) Chaloult, L. (2016). La relaxation progressive et différentielle de Jacobson.