For a time, I was keeping up with my Friday updates, but it’s finals week, which means I’m grading stacks of essays, as well as submitting projects for my two online information technology courses, so my attempt to regulate was thrown off-track.
I missed a week.
Fortunately, missing a week inspired me to research self-regulation. While I still have more work I’d like to do on this topic, I wanted to share what I’ve unearthed so far.
What is Self-Regulation?
Psychology Today isn’t my favorite source—sometimes they publish wonky things about autism—but I give it credit as the magazine that first interested me in human behavior, when I was in junior high. Here’s a 2011 definition of theirs about self-regulation, written by Steven Stosny:
Research consistently shows that self-regulation skill is necessary for reliable emotional well being. Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. (Violation of one’s deepest values causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which undermine well being.) Emotionally, self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down.
When I think of self-regulating, I don’t just consider this emotional layer, but also the actions I’m taking towards my long-term goals; and like most things in my life, I like consistency and repetition, so that these actions and emotions are pursued daily and/or weekly.
While I know a regular schedule can help autistic people—which, in turn, bolsters that emotional self-regulation practice—the fear of upcoming change, coupled with the increased responsibilities at the end of the semester, set me off-course.
And I’m aware that, once I’m off-center, my daily activities can spiral into disaster; to put it another way, it feels like the more off-course I become, the harder it becomes to get back. But I also know practicing forgiveness is important, since it’s impossible to maintain a consistent schedule every week, every day. Because life.
I am inevitability going to fall out of the swing of things, and I need to embrace when that happens, rather than interpreting slip-ups as defeats. If anything, these are opportunities to praise my inner child for getting through unpredictable patches; my depression knows how much my inner child needs opportunities for praise.
Scheduling Actions to Help Emotions
Part of what confuses me is the complexity of my current schedule; I have too many things I want to do each day, each week. Yet whenever I try to simplify, I want to do more. I’m starting to think the real challenge is wanting to do less.
Herein is the golden fibers of self-regulating actions to self-regulate emotions: by becoming consciously aware of this new insight—the real challenge is wanting to do less—I can hone in on where some of my anxiety is rooted. I can identify why my emotional self-regulation is malwired by paying attention to my self-regulated actions.
For instance, I’d ideally like to update each of these blogs once per week:
- Cleo’s Autism Awareness, this blog, where I consider autism;
- Reminiscencings, my poetry blog; and
- Kourtnie.net, my personal blog.
I’d also like to update these Wattpad stories once per week:
Yet I have a lot of other blogs and stories, so I become overwhelmed, trying to figure out where all of them go. When and if I cut losses, do I decide to finish those other projects later?—do I label them incomplete, then link to the ones I’m currently working on?—do I take them offline?
If the challenge is to do less, I need to follow through with one or all of the above ideas, until I am not overwhelmed by the internal voice asking what do I do about the others?
I can already see it’s possible to create a daily writing practice with the five online projects I listed, plus a handwritten journal on Saturdays and Sundays; so I know how to take the pieces I’ve decided to continue building, then simplify them into a daily practice.
It’s just a matter of charting the steps I need to follow to get from here to there, then take one step every day, until the simplification is complete.
Another part of my daily regulation is data collection. What parts of my life do I want to quantify in order to evaluate what’s happening at a distance?—for instance, my FitBit tracks all sorts of data about my doings, but I don’t pay attention much to the steps per hour, and I’ve neglected filling out the hydration and dietary information in the app.
However, I check my sleep every day, and I’ve worked diligently on improving my sleep as a result, including:
- Blackout curtains;
- Lowering the temperature in the bedroom;
- Adherence to bedtime (when possible); and
- Reducing television time in the evening.
By paying attention to one of my activities—how I sleep—I’m improving on a desperately needed element to emotional self-regulation: reducing exhaustion.
Listing Activities to Healthier Emotions
Everyone’s list will look a little different. I’m sharing to inspire, not to instruct. Also, these lists describe an ideal, not a reality; again, feeling like a letdown does no good—especially when practicing forgiveness for deviations is a chance for self-love.
I like to think in terms of what time of day it is, versus hour-by-hour schedules, especially because this leaves room for me to drive to classes to lecture or learn. College classes are like the bubbles drifting between the semi-solid of my ritualized day.
- Write (Mornings)
- TThu—Wattpad stories.
- Long-term goal—build a blogosphere, as well as novels and poems, to offer free content to online readers, so when I self-publish, I’ll have an audience.
- Mediate (Noontime)
- Daily—Calm app.
- Short-term goal—100-day streak in Calm app, because my World of Warcraft neurons can be tricked into releasing dopamine for health-based achievements.
- Long-term goal—I’d like more control over the gap between feeling and thinking. I’m convinced I can strengthen my response to my overactive flight-fight-freeze center by building a meditative muscle.
- Garden (Early Afternoons)
- Laugh (Late Afternoons)
- Daily—watch comedies with husband.
- Long-term goal—invest in my relationships with my husband and funny bone. I don’t want to die with a poor relationship with my husband or funny bone.
- Read (Evenings)
- MWF—fiction, to off-set the nonfiction I write on blogs.
- TThu—nonfiction, to off-set the fiction I write on Wattpad.
- Short-term goal—I decided to read 36 books this year. Last year, I read 24 books. If I don’t make it to 36 books this year, that’s okay, as long as it’s more than 24 books; as long as I take a step further.
- Long-term goal—good writers are good readers.
Actions Help Emotions
Humans have achieved as much as we have because we can look far into the future, as well as reflect deeply into the past. Our theory of mind reaches territories uncharted. So when we successfully solve a deep sorrow from our past, or achieve a goal we set in our far-flung future, it feels very good. It feels very human.
In this way, self-regulated actions towards distant goals almost inevitably lead to self-regulated emotions. In other words, by achieving our far-flung dreams, and resolving our deepest pasts—through our tiny, daily activities—we eventually realize, at an emotional level, that we’re embracing our better-and-better human selves, every day; so in turn, our emotions feel easier to accept and control.
A link exists between self-regulated actions and self-regulated emotions.
Yet autistic people have overactive amygdalae, and a trigger-happy fight-flight-freeze center means that it’s common to feel overwhelmed. If we know that we thrive by achieving big things with our past pains and future dreams—yet we can’t ever seem to get closer to the big things, since we’re overwhelmed all the time—that can have the opposite effect: it can feel very bad. It can feel very less-than-human.
Depression is within that downward spiral, a maw of unforgiving teeth.
So what do we do?
I’ve found that chunking helps me navigate feeling overwhelmed. I don’t even need to chunk it out in a tremendous list (although I’ve done that before, and it can help); I just need to acknowledge that the overwhelming task can be chunked.
For example, my office was a disaster. Unfiled paperwork, two years old or more; books stacked haphazardly against boxes; a messy floor. It made working unpleasant, which meant I needed to clean it. But every time I decided, “So I’ll clean it,” I looked at it and froze. This is also a problem relating to my executive dysfunction.
To unfreeze myself, I had to acknowledge the mess could be chunked. I started with a reasonable goal: “Just clean ten minutes a day.” The boost I’d receive from following through with this chunked, time-based goal helped me process the overwhelming paralysis—until I got through about half of it.
I remember when my husband asked when we were going to try our printer, when I said, “I’m not installing anything in this room until I clean it,” when he said he’d help me clean it, what happened when it became a two-person task:
“What do I do?” he asked.
“Move the papers there,” I said.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Put the books in the bookshelves in the living room,” I said.
Everything was a simple task.
We were just going through a series of simple tasks.
It was never this epic, unattainable task at all.
Eager to receive his help, my mind started listing the tasks out in a row. I could quantify how much work was left in the other half of the room. I could not only chunk it, but I could break it into specific chunks, so that I could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Self-Regulated Actions are Chunky
Ultimately, the self-regulation of daily activities is so effective because it’s giving the mind and body the emotional boost of a chunked activity—yet only once per day.
So instead of drowning under a massive thing made of hundreds of chunks, it’s a daily drumbeat of hundreds of chunks towards a massive thing. An overwhelming task becomes a steady drip towards something to look forward to finishing.
To look forward to finishing—quite a boon for keeping emotions cool.
That’s how I like to think about it, anyway. If other people have other suggestions or stories about self-regulating emotions—whether it’s about daily activities, chunking, or another idea entirely—I’d love to hear about it.
Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.