How to Control Emotions and Automatic Thoughts

One of the most in-demand skills in the professional and/or social spheres today is to know how to control the emotions and thoughts that our minds generate in response to a situation.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation or control is the ability to manage emotions appropriately. It consists of directing and managing emotions—both positive and negative—effectively.

The Essential Component of Emotional Control is Cognitive

The essential component of emotional regulation is of a cognitive nature, since this is the way we interpret the concrete situations that condition emotional reactions. For example, we might interpret a negative comment someone makes about us as offensive, which would cause an emotional reaction of anger or dislike towards that person. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as having a positive or constructive intention behind it, which would mean that there would be no hard feelings. This is why understanding our thoughts is an indispensable part of emotional regulation.

Bodily Control has an Impact on Emotional Regulation

The other basic component of emotional regulation is related to bodily control, since the intensity of the feelings we experience is closely related to physiological arousal. For this reason, muscular relaxation and breath control allow us to regulate and control our emotional reactions and their intensity.

How to Regulate Emotions

Therefore, regulating emotions implies:

  • Being aware of the interaction that exists between emotion, cognition (thoughts) and behaviour. The emotional states have an effect on behaviour and vice versa, and both can be regulated by cognition.
  • Expressing emotions appropriately. This involves understanding that internal emotional states do not have to correspond to external expression—neither in ourselves nor in others. At levels of greater maturity, regulating emotions implies understanding that one’s own emotional expression can have an impact on others.
  • Impulse control (anger, violence, risky behaviours) and tolerating frustration in order to prevent negative emotional states (stress, anxiety, depression).
  • Facing negative emotions by using self-regulation strategies that alleviate the intensity and duration of these emotional states.
  • Voluntarily and consciously generating positive emotions (happiness, love, humour, ‘flow’) and self-managing one’s subjective wellbeing for a better quality of life. Even though traditionally it was believed that emotional control is only required for negative emotions, a broader view of what emotional education means believes that the ability to bring out positive emotions and moods in oneself and in others is just as necessary.


Appropriately responding to the emotions we experience:
An essential element of emotional education

Important components:

  • Frustration tolerance
  • Anger management
  • Capacity to postpone rewards
  • Ability to deal with risky situations (for example peer pressure to take drugs)
  • Development of empathy

Techniques for emotional regulation:

  • Internal dialogue
  • Stress management (relaxation, meditation, breathing)
  • Positive self-affirmations
  • Assertiveness
  • Cognitive restructuring
  • Emotive imagination
  • Causal attribution

Didactic Suggestions and Activities for Developing Emotional Regulation:

To first provide some context:

  • The message that should be transmitted in all activities and debates that are carried out is the following: Emotions cannot be avoided, nor should they be. If we feel fear, it must be expressed. However, we must make an effort to be able to control both the intensity and the duration of negative emotions as well as develop the ability to evoke and prolong positive ones.
  • We should know how to differentiate between feelings and actions. All emotions are appropriate but some forms of expressing them are not. We must explain that different emotions can be expressed in different ways. For example, anger can be expressed without the need to shout, attack, hit or insult; it can be done by using constructive words and firmly communicating how we feel. It is more about behavioural self-control than emotional self-control.
  • When explaining theories about emotional control, we must point out that the way we think has a significant effect on how we perceive situations. This means explaining to the students that what they feel will depend on what they think. For example, if they think, “I won’t be able to do this well,” they will feel disheartened, but if they think, “I will be able to achieve it if I put in some effort,” they will feel hopeful, excited and be in high spirits.

Automatic Thoughts:

Automatic thoughts are commonly related to intense emotional states (like anxiety, depression, anger or euphoria). They are differentiated from thoughts that tend to be rationalised through reflection and analysis and that can be carried out in emotional moments of calmness or tranquillity.

  • They are internal dialogues about very concrete topics; they involve specific messages.
  • They appear as short messages by way of “key words”.
  • They are thoughts, conscious or unconscious, but involuntary. In other words, they are produced automatically. They are hard to control and to avoid, but there are methods that make it easier.

Common Automatic Thoughts and How to Avoid Them:

Cognitive distortions are different types of automatic thought that tend to be common and repetitive and produce distorted and irrational thoughts.

Most Common Cognitive Distortions:


This is selecting just one aspect of the situation and not noticing other aspects that contradict it. Usually we filter the negative and forget the positive, so the whole situation is interpreted according to that one selected detail. In an evaluation, for example, the one negative comment about our work can weigh down on us more than the positive comments can encourage us. To counteract this distortion it is good to ask, “Is this really the whole story?”

Polarised Thinking

This is valuing or perceiving events in an extreme way without taking into account the intermediate aspects. Things are valued as black or white: “If I am not perfect, I can be nothing but a failure.” In order to counteract this it is useful to ask whether there are degrees in between the two extremes.


In this distortion a generalised conclusion is made about a simple incident or a single piece of evidence. Key words are: everything, nothing, never, always, everyone and no one. To counteract this we should ask, “How many times has this really happened? Has there been a different case that shows it is not always like this?”

Thought Interpretation

This is the tendency to interpret other people’s feelings and intentions without basis. Key phrases are “That is because…” and “That is due to…” To counteract it, it is useful to ask ourselves, “What proof do I have that supports this assumption? Can I do something to check if this supposition is true?”


This is putting oneself in the worst possible scenario without any evidence or reason to do so. The key phrase tends to be “What if…?” To counteract this it is good to stop anticipating, to focus on the present, and to consider possibilities. We can ask ourselves, “Have I thought this before? What really happened? What is the likelihood of this actually happening?”


This cognitive distortion tends to be accompanied by the tendency to compare oneself constantly with others. Key phrases are “They’re talking about me” or “I do this better [or worse] than they do.”

Fallacy of Control

This is when the person either believes they are responsible for everything that happens around them, or, at the other extreme, believes they have absolutely no control over what happens in their life. Key phrases are “I can’t do anything about…”, “I will only feel good if…” and “It’s all my fault…”

Fallacy of Fairness

This consists of interpreting everything that does not coincide with wishes or personal expectations as unfair. Key phrases are “They have no right to…”, “It’s not fair that…”, “If it really…”, and “So…”

Emotional Reasoning

This is about believing that emotions are directly related to the truth. Emotions are believed to be objective facts and not subjective interpretations.

Fallacy of Change

The person tends to believe that in order for their needs to be met, it is others who must first change their behaviour. For example, in the case of a relationship problem, saying, “The problems will only be resolved if my partner changes”. To counteract this we should ask ourselves, “What can I test to prove to myself that the situation does not only depend on that one person? And even if it is not the case, is there something I can do about it?”

Global Labelling

This consists of labelling ourselves or others, almost always using the verb to be. The key phrases are “I am a…”, “He is a…”, “They are…”


This is attributing complete responsibility to ourselves or to others without a strong enough foundation and without taking into account other factors that contribute to the event. Another characteristic of blaming is that often it does not lead to the person changing their behaviour, but rather simply over-thinking bad things that have happened. In this case the key phrases are “…my fault” and “it’s …’s fault.” In order to counteract this, we can look for the causes of the problem without necessarily looking to find a guilty party.

Should Statements

A person with this distortion behaves according to demanding or inflexible rules about how things ought to happen. Any deviation from these rules or norms is considered intolerable and causes an emotional reaction. Thoughts focus on what should be instead of what is. The key phrases that indicate the presence of this distortion are “I should…”, “I shouldn’t…”, “I have to…”, “I don’t have to…”

Fallacy of Reason

This consists of the tendency to frequently test whether one’s point of view is correct and true when in disaccord with another person’s. The opinions of this kind of person rarely change because they find it difficult to accept new information. When facts do not match what they already believe, they ignore them.

Fallacy of Divine Reward

In this cognitive distortion the person tends not to look for a solution to difficulties or problems, supposing that the situation will either magically improve in the future or that something will “make up for” the current suffering. In this case the key phrases that indicate the distortion are something like, “Tomorrow I will be compensated,” and “Things will always get better in the future.”


We’d love to know if you have learnt something new and if you have ever had to deal with your own automatic thoughts!

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