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  • Writer's pictureColorado Coherence Collective

Emotional Regulation: How "Story follows State"

Emotional Regulation is a complex skill that many people do not possess. This is often because they were never offered co-regulation support or taught how to self-regulate their own emotions in a developmentally appropriate manner. If you can relate to this, we have good news for you: it is never too late to learn! 

To fully understand Emotional Regulation, we must first differentiate between a reaction and a response.

  1. Reactions are somatic (body-based) experiences that manifest at the sensory-receptor level within our autonomic nervous system as a signal up to the brain (bottom-up processing). They are automatic, unconscious, uncontrollable, and only sometimes outwardly observable to others in the form of verbal/nonverbal communication, body language, or behavior.

  • ex: We jump when we hear a loud and unexpected noise.

  • ex: We squint when we step into bright sunlight.

  • ex: We grimace when we stub our toe.

  • ex: We open our mouths when our food is too hot.

  1. Responses, which occur several milliseconds later, are cognitive (thought-based) experiences that manifest within our brain or mind as a signal down to our bodies (top-down processing). They are semi-conscious, sometimes-controllable, and often observable to others in the form of verb/nonverbal communication, body language, or behavior. 

  • ex: We cover our ears when we hear a loud and unexpected noise.

  • ex: We shield our eyes when we step into sunlight.

  • ex: We swear or say “ouch!” when we stub our toe. 

  • ex: We say “hot”, suck in cool air, or spit out food that is too hot.

This is the physiological basis of Deb Dana's phrase "neuroception precedes perception" or "story follows state" (Dana, 2018). The “state” comes first in the form of a somatic (body-based) shift within our autonomic nervous system. The “story” follows several milliseconds later in the form of the cognitive (thought-based or emotional) meaning our brains assign to the somatic (body-based) experience. The conscious “story” we create (eg: I feel sad) comes several milliseconds after the unconscious “state” we experience (eg: we feel a lump in our throat and tears streaming down our face when we hear a sad song).

To further understand how to regulate our emotions, we first have to understand how we process our emotions. The Process Model of Emotional Regulation was created in 1998 by JJ Gross. It is an antecedent-focused model which relies on the following stages of Emotional Processing: 

  1. Situation: the emotional-eliciting situation occurs as novel stimuli

  2. Attention: we notice the situation and turn our attention to it

  3. Appraisal: we assess the situation to determine if we are safe

  4. Response: we experience a reaction and produce a response that is outwardly observable to others in our behavior, body language, and verbal/nonverbal communication. 

While we are processing our emotions, Gross argues we can utilize the following 5 strategies to practice Emotional Regulation: 

  1. Situational Selection: we can effectively identify and choose environments, social contexts, and situations that will be less dis-stressing, dysregulating, or triggering for us.

  2. Situational Modification: we can identify and implement necessary changes to stressful environments, social contexts, or situations, that minimize likelihood of dis-stress or dysregulation (often includes using strategies or requesting support from others)

  3. Attentional Deployment: we can use attention or distraction to cope with dis-stressing emotions

  4. Cognitive Change: we can use strategies of cognitive reappraisal to challenge our assumptions and perceptions, and change our mindset from a fixed or fatalistic mindset to a flexible or growth mindset.

  5. Response Modulation: we can use coping strategies to manage our internal emotional reactions to produce external emotional responses (several milliseconds later) that meet our personal needs, the needs of our social context or environment, and are aligned with our values and goals. 

Emotional Regulation is a skill that requires a great deal of self and interoceptive awareness, as well as diligent and regular practice in the form of behavioral experimentation with various strategies. Emotional regulation skill development can be most effective when practiced with the help of our support teams, including both our loved ones and competent support professionals.



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