Zooming out as an emotion regulation strategy

Emotion regulation is at it sounds, the adjustment, control or balancing of our emotional state.

There are many examples of what that might look like. If I am feeling sad, I might do something to lift my mood. If I am bit overexcited, I might look to calm myself a little.

How we feel in any given moment isn’t entirely within our control. Our biology, circumstances, company, attention, task all play a role. But we do have the capacity, having become mindful of how we are feeling, to utilise strategies to modulate those feelings – lift, lower, change, amplify, quieten.

Whilst there are good arguments for honouring and accepting our feelings (a good topic for a future post), there are times when it is valuable for us to take action to modify them in some way. The most pertinent example for me is managing strong emotions at times where I need to make good decisions – stressful situations where I need to keep a clear head. If I get too wrapped up in the strong feeling, I risk making a bad decisions and making the situation worse.

The strategies we use to regulate our emotions take many forms. Some we might describe as adaptive, meaning they produce good outcomes with minimal negative consequences (e.g. breathing retraining). Others we might describe as maladaptive, meaning they might work in the present moment but often come with medium to long-term negative consequences (e.g. drug and alcohol use).

As an adult you carry the emotion regulation strategies that you learned growing up, as well as any others you’ve picked up along the way, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally. To reflect on yours, take note of what you do when you are feeling stressed, sad, anxious or afraid. Emotion regulation strategies can take a few forms:

  • Things we do (e.g. slow breathing, meditation, watching TV, having a shower, going outside)
  • Ways we think (e.g. realistic thinking, taking other perspectives, challenging thoughts, reminding ourselves of our values)
  • Ways we interact (speaking to a friend, asking for a hug)

Some we can use in the moment, meaning they ground us at the time of experiencing the strong emotion (e.g. box breathing). Others are what we might use to reduce the overall time spent with those difficult feelings (e.g. taking some ‘me time’ on the couch).

There comes a point for most of us where we need to learn and apply new strategies. Maybe previous strategies don’t work anymore. Maybe you are confronting a situation that is unfamiliar to you. Maybe new emotions/feelings have emerged for which you don’t have strategies. Whatever the reason, there is value in expanding your emotion regulation repertoire.

One that I find myself using a bit more recently is zooming out.

When angry, frustrated or stressed I find my world shrinks. I disappear into my own head, the world disappears, and I start to lose perspective. It is a very trapped, close experience. That trapped feeling then just exacerbates the anger, frustration or stress. I get caught in my own self-referential frustration.

Zooming out, which I do as an imagery exercise, is to try and gain some perspective, to shift that sense of self.

I first imagine leaving my body and floating just a few metres above myself. It is a chance to take note of my surrounds and situation – where I am, who I am with. I often discover I am in a nice place, with good people. I might become more aware of the sights and sounds around me. I might feel grateful for the things I have.

I might then zoom further out, imagining my ethereal self taking stock of the whole neighbourhood. This might alert me to the weather, to the overall quiet and order of the surrounding areas. I can visualise everyone going about their day, with their own victories and challenges. I might feel grateful for where I get to live.

This zooming out can go much further. Zoom out to see the whole country, the whole planet, the solar system, the galaxy.

At each level of zoom out, I am able to reference my current state of thinking against increasingly bigger reference points.

I’m in a bad mood BUT my current situation is good
I am stressed BUT I have a roof over my head
I am struggling with an issue BUT I live in a neighbourhood that is good and safe
I am annoyed with some aspect of my life BUT I get to live a great life here in Australia
Being a human is hard BUT I get to live on this amazing earth
My problems seem huge to me BUT in the context of the whole universe they are small

Don’t get me wrong, this strategy has limits. Some might find the use of the word ‘BUT’ in the examples above invalidating of the actual difficulties they are facing. You can replace the word ‘BUT’ with ‘AND’ and you still get the perspective shift and comparison but in a softer way.

I’m also very fortunate that I can also use this strategy because I have a lot of socio-demographic and mental health privilege. This means I don’t need to zoom out far in my life in order to find objects of gratitude. Others are in far more challenging circumstances. The zoom out method may simply further highlight the difficulty of their predicament.

As such, this is a ‘use if appropriate and helpful’ situation.

A final word.

In this post I emphasised the use of visual imagery to achieve the zooming effect, but you can get a similar self-distancing effect using language as well. A simple example is to refer to yourself in the third person. Instead of ‘I am sad’, I might say ‘Gareth is sad’. That then triggers a line of internal questioning in which I inquire into the welfare of ‘Gareth’ and analyse his difficulties but from the forced perspective of an outsider. I wrote about something similar back in 2019 on the Student Health and Wellbeing Blog.

Do you use zooming out to gain perspective in your own life? Where has it worked well? In what situations doesn’t it work well?

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