There are 2 main ways that we view emotional processing:
Let's start with the top-down approach.
Your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain right behind your eyebrows) is associated with a number of what we call "higher order cognitive processes" or in simpler terms, logic and thinking. Top-down emotions use the prefrontal cortex to bring conscious awareness to our emotions. It's the opposite of the reptile-brain emotional reaction.
Top-down emotional processing follows a sequence:
1) Event occurs
2) We become aware of what is happening and have some thoughts about it
3) We have an emotional response based on our thoughts about the event
The way to use top-down processing to help with your emotional regulation is to work on that conscious thought level. Now, we can't help the thoughts that initially pop into our heads, but we can learn to recognize and refute those thoughts. My favourite CBT technique to use in sessions (and you will already probably have heard this if you are a client of mine!) is the combination of thought stopping, reality testing, and positive self-talk.
So we experience an event and have an initial negative thought pop into our head. (Sometimes this is called an intrusive thought because we didn't consciously think it, it's an "intruder" in our brain.) We recognize that we don't want to have an emotional reaction to that negative thought, so we do something conscious to stop the thought. Some people say STOP! either in their head or out loud, some like to have a little mantra to tell themselves such as "My thoughts cannot hurt me", and I actually give my head a little shake which I like to imagine physically shakes the thought away. (Or more likely just gets me out of my head and grounded back to my body.)
Regardless of the technique you use, you've consciously stopped the negative thought spiral and can now do some reality testing. How likely is it that the negative thought is true? If it is true, what's the worst that can happen? Use your rational thoughts to make sense of the situation instead of your gut emotional reaction. Then hype yourself up with positive self-talk. Refute those negative thoughts with positive ones, even if you don't really believe what you're saying. Fake it 'til you make it. The more positively you talk to yourself, the easier it gets, and the more believable it becomes.
Want other way to strengthen your top-down emotional regulation?
Try mindfulness - the art of paying attention to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to lower what we call your baseline level of stress - the amount of stress you experience on a day-to-day basis. By being more mindful of the events happening around you and your emotional reactions to them, you're strengthening your ability to process emotions in a top-down way. Rather than being immediately reactive to situations, you're able to take a beat, and respond in a more rational way.
Mindfulness is also a great way to pick up on your personal emotional triggers. When you start to pick up on those patterns, you're able to prepare yourself emotionally for a situation that you know tends to be stressful for you. If you're prepared for your emotions, they are less likely to completely overwhelm you compared to if you always feel like they've snuck up on you and you only recognize that it's too much when it's already too late. If you're autistic or an ADHDer (or your child is), this awareness practice can be key to reducing the frequency and severity of meltdowns.
In Part 2, I'll talk about bottom-up emotional processing and regulation and the differences between fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.