While technical graphics for the concept of emotional regulation are easy to find, overly clinical or technical-looking materials can often make people feel bored, overwhelmed, worried, or pathologized. I created these resources for educators and clinicians as approachable, nonclinical visual aids for teaching all age groups about emotions and emotional regulation.

Rainbow of Emotional Regulation - A Printable PDF Social Emotional Learning Resource.

Rainbow of Emotional Regulation – A Social Emotional Learning Printable Infographic

All of us have some resiliency to cope with challenges. When we encounter difficult experiences that take us past the range of our ability to tolerate, the ways we tend to respond fall into one of two categories: those of us who get agitated, and those of us who shut down.

Emotional regulation refers to our ability to stay present, engaged, and able to listen and learn despite challenges. My rainbow of emotional regulation is a social-emotional learning resource that can help teach this concept in the classroom, in counseling sessions, or at home.

Everyone Feels Overwhelmed Sometimes

Even though most humans have had both experiences (getting extremely upset or shutting down) in response to overwhelming emotion, most of us tend to respond to highly distressing situations by consistently returning to one end of the spectrum or the other.

Therapists call these two extremes hypoarousal and hyperarousal.

  • Hypoarousal occurs when we shut down. Our heart rate slows down, our thoughts may become foggy or unclear, and we may find ourselves with nothing to say and no strong feeling in particular.
  • Hyperarousal is the opposite of this. Heart rates rise, tears come uncontrollably, and we may talk very fast or with a strained voice. In a hyperaroused state, thoughts may race, and we may find ourselves frantic to express ourselves.

Some theorists propose that our attachment style may predict which extreme is a person’s default response to being pushed beyond their window of tolerance. (Read more about attachment styles and access my visual interpretation of the spectrum here.) This theory proposes that individuals who are avoidant in attachment style have learned, during childhood, to respond to conflict by shutting down and checking out. This is because they learned this was the most effective way to preserve connection with a caregiver in their family of origin. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals who were better able to access care in childhood by expressing big emotions are more likely to default to a hyper-aroused state when interpersonal conflict pushes them to their window of tolerance.

Stress Weakens Our Capacity to Regulate Our Emotions

When we are under high levels of stress, our window of tolerance (i.e., our ability to regulate our emotions) shrinks. A healthy window of tolerance that might have been wide open with lots of room for self-regulation before we were under stress becomes compressed. As a result, we may find ourselves losing our temper or bursting into tears more often.

If this stress is short-term, our ability to regulate our emotions will likely return to normal once the stressor has passed. However, in the case of chronic stress or trauma, the help of mental health treatment or additional resources may be needed to develop a greater capacity to regulate emotions.