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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. Download a copy of this visual teaching tool below. 

Our range of emotional regulation refers to how much we can handle emotionally, before shutting down or blowing up (Emotional states called “hypoarousal” and “hyperarousal,” respectively, by brain researchers.) Healthy brains in optimal circumstances have a big arch that helps us stay present to listen, learn, and grow even when difficult stuff is happening. The normal arch of a healthy range of emotional regulation looks a little bit like a rainbow: wide and high with lots of wiggle room between “ok,” “kind of ok,” and “very not ok.”

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A social emotional learning illustration about emotional regulation

For brains that have experienced trauma, neglect, or some mental illnesses, that middle space of the rainbow is a little smaller. Those kids and adults may move into shut-down or overwhelmed state more quickly. Even if we don’t have long-term mental health struggles, short-term stress can also impact our capacity to emotionally regulate.

Table Of Contents

Understanding the Rainbow of Emotional Regulation

In this illustration, the rainbow represents the range of emotional experiences we can tolerate – what some researchers call the Window of Tolerance. On each end of this rainbow is a storm cloud. The cloud on the left has a blank expression on its face and an icy rain falling below – this cloud represents what happens when kids and adults who tend towards shutting down are overstimulated beyond their ability to regulate. On the other end of the rainbow, you’ll see a storm cloud that is very upset and raining tears below – this cloud represents what happens when kids and adults who respond to overwhelming experiences through connection-seeking expressions of big emotion.

Although our range of emotional regulation ends with a stormcloud, we can learn to recognize the early warning signs and restore emotional equilibrium.

Sometimes, being challenged to venture into the edges of our rainbow is part of growing. But without the right support, finding ourselves beyond the edges of our ability to regulate can be upsetting, scary, and potentially even traumatic. Entering these marginal spaces with the right tools is how we learn to trust our ability to self-soothe and grow, but at the extreme ends of our rainbow, growth, learning, and authentic engagement are impossible. At those extremes – when we are shut down or completely panicked – brains neurologically enter a fight/flight/freeze state and can’t grow, think clearly, or make goal-directed choices until they’re able to regulate return to the rainbow.

Gauging How to Stay in our Rainbow of Emotional Regulation

How do we know when to push through difficult conversations or to take a break? By checking in with ourselves and each other. Whether it’s a romantic partner, our own child, a student, a client, or a co-worker, we can all care a little better for each other by learning to recognize the cues that a person is exiting their range of emotional regulation (aka, their capacity to self-soothe or their window of tolerance) and entering what mental health professionals call states of Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal.

Good partnering, parenting, or teaching often looks like finding ways to support someone’s return to an emotionally regulated state where they can listen, learn, and grow.

Distress occurs on both ends of the emotional regulation spectrum. Some people get overwhelmed, but others shut down.

Avoiding the Stormclouds of Emotional Extremes

At either end of our range of emotional regulation (our rainbow) are the extremes of hypo- and hyperarousal (the storm clouds). It’s important to note that the stormclouds have an important role. In the midst of emotional trauma, these “stormclouds” offer protection against devastating emotional harm.  According to Kekuni Minton, Pat Ogden, and Clare Pain in their landmark textbook Trauma and the Body, these extremes of arousal may have been adaptive – even helpful – during past experiences of trauma, but in safe, social situations the same behaviors and responses can cause problems. (Pg 26. Chapter: window of tolerance: the capacity for modulating arousal. Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. 2006.)

The Big Freeze: Hypoaroused Emotions

At its most intense extremes, hypoarousal can be pretty easy to spot: a person unable to regulate their emotions who has moved into a hypoaroused state may appear dazed, slow to respond to questions, and unable to focus. To protect themselves from overwhelming emotional pain, a person prone to hypoarousal has a brain that has adapted by checking out” to some degree. It’s important to note that hypoarousal isn’t always easy to spot. A brain moving from the edges of a range of healthy emotional regulation to a hypoarousal state may appear distracted, spacey, distant, or simply like the person “won’t pay attention.”

Although our range of emotional regulation ends with a stormcloud, we can learn to recognize the early warning signs and restore emotional equilibrium.

In his book Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, on the ways that mindfulness practices can be adapted to better serve trauma survivors (many mindfulness practices can be triggering for trauma survivors), David Treleaven writes “If [someone is] hypo aroused, they may experience an absence of feeling, dissociation, and disabled cognitive processing. No matter how sincere and effort they may be bringing to meditation, the practice itself can become a setup for further distress.”

In other words, even though people pushed out of emotional regulation into a hypoaroused state can seem calm and express a desire to continue a difficult conversation, therapy session, or classroom activity, they aren’t able to really engage, learn, grow, or connect with others as long as they are in a hypoaroused state. Some researchers believe that individuals with an avoidant attachment style may be more prone to responding to overwhelming emotional experiences with a hypoarousal response. 

The Thunderstorm: Hyperaroused Emotions

“With hyperarousal, our cognitive processing tends to be disorganized and in disarray. There’s too much stimulation, and often it becomes difficult to pay attention.” ( Treleaven, chapter 5. “Stay within the window of tolerance: the role of arousal” in Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness )

Although our range of emotional regulation ends with a stormcloud, we can learn to recognize the early warning signs and restore emotional equilibrium.

Like hypoarousal, hyperarousal is a brain making what it believes is the best attempt to preventing pain. Tears and big emotions, common to hyperarousal, are powerful communication signals that can help a person access the care from another person that can help them calm down and move out of a hyperaroused state.

Hyperarousal behaviors like tears, tantrums, and loud emotional expression can sometimes get negatively considered an attention-seeking behavior, but the ability to seek out care in the midst of crisis is actually adaptive! Recovery is never aided through ignoring or demeaning these emotional outbursts – instead, recovery comes through 1. growing awareness of when we’re nearing the edge of our range of emotional regulation and 2. practicing using skills and strategies to proactively self-soothe either alone or through emotion regulating relationships with a parent, partner, therapist, or friend. 

Some researchers believe that individuals with a preoccupied attachment style may be more prone to responding to overwhelming emotional experiences with a hyperarousal response. 

Ways to Increase Our Capacity for Emotional Regulation

A question people often have in response to these graphics is: how can we grow our capacity for emotional regulation?

The good news is that our current capacity for emotional regulation isn’t set for life – our brains can change and grow throughout our lifespan, and with it, our capacity to self-soothe in stressful situations can be developed at any age.

Peter A. Levine states that learning to pace ourselves and recognize our own emotional capacity can help us gently begin to increase our comfort zone over time. (Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. 2012)

Although our range of emotional regulation ends with a stormcloud, we can learn to recognize the early warning signs and restore emotional equilibrium.

And it’s normal to experience day-to-day changes in our capacity to emotionally regulate stressful situations. When we are going through a particularly difficult phase in life – such as the loss of a loved one, a health crisis, a job change, or moving – we may find it temporarily difficult to regulate our emotions even in situations that might have been easily managed a few weeks before.

Similarly, emotional regulation may be easier during particularly low-stress periods of life, or in response to personal growth achieved through good therapy, stable and healthy personal relationships, mindfulness, yoga, time spent outdoors, and more.

Each person has his or her own unique window tolerance. Importantly, this window can narrow or enlarge overtime, across contacts, or in response to changing life circumstances and events, including exposure to adversity or enhancement of individual capacities and resources.

-David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper PhD. pg101. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: reclaiming your body.

No matter how old we are, we can still experience the benefits of social emotional learning and growing our capacity for emotional regulation! For all individuals – both adults and kids – our capacity to manage emotions broadens when we are experiencing good care, safe intimate relationships, and mindful connection to the world around us and within us. 

The following experiences are connected to an enhanced capacity for emotional regulation:

  • Experiencing the feeling of being close, connected, and securely attached to someone that we trust
    • Including a parent or caregiver, romantic partner, therapist, or anyone that our brain knows we can trust and lean on.
  • Connection to and awareness of our own emotions and embodied experience.
  • Caring for and receiving unconditional acceptance from a pet.
  • Walking, hiking, or other outdoor activities that focus on “taking in our surroundings” rather than achieving fitness goals.
  • Yoga, mindfulness, and other activities that focus on increasing awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.
  • Positive childhood experiences like those identified by researchers as being connected to resilience and thriving.

All of these activities (and so many not listed here!) help to grow connections in our brain that help us better regulate emotions and weather triggering and uncomfortable experiences with resilience.

Things will always upset us, and that’s ok

A healthy emotional life isn’t being able to progress through life’s bumps and disappointments unphased, it’s the emotional flexibility to experience emotions fully, adapt to difficulties, and bounce back – or even thrive – with resilience. Getting there takes work. It means staying present to difficult conflicts or challenging relationships and learning, over time, how to take care of yourself so you can engage authentically without hiding or exploding.

Growth comes via moving in and out of the edges of our window of tolerance over and over – with intention, kindness, and awareness – until we know the way back by heart. “Peter Levine calls this process pendulation – gently moving in and out of accessing internal sensations and traumatic memories. In this way, [people] are helped to gradually expand their window of tolerance.” (Bessel Van Der Kolk. pg 220. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.)

When we are healthy and able to experience a wide range of emotions without shutting down or getting really upset, we can thrive in relationships, career, and education.

Social Emotional Learning: Emotional Regulation Skills for Kids

Francis S. Waters, a therapist and author of a textbook on treating children prone to hypoarousal writes “when one moves towards the outer edge of the window of tolerance, one moves closer to chaos or rigidity, resulting in a loss of a sense of balance and harmonious functioning. Teaching children calming and mindfulness techniques as they begin to move out of their window of tolerance is critical for returning to homeostasis as well as for preventing future destabilization.” (Pg 224. Healing the fractured child: diagnosis and treatment of youth with dissociation).

In other words – teaching emotional regulation and other social emotional learning skills isn’t just about creating calmer, better-behaved kids – it’s about helping kids that are slipping into the gutters of chaos or rigidity to move towards an overall healthier, more balanced life.

Kids who can develop just a little awareness to notice their emotional state and who learn just a few skills they can use to get back into a better frame of mind when they notice they are feeling dysregulated are kids who are a little better equipped to weather the inevitable storms of life and healthy relationships with just a little more flexibility, resilience, and capacity to thrive.  

The Impact of Trauma on Emotional Regulation

Trauma shrinks our capacity to emotionally regulate when faced with difficult, stressful, or PTSD-triggering situations. When our brains have experienced trauma and haven’t received the care we need to integrate that trauma in a healthy way, it’s common to experience a reduced capacity to emotionally regulate. 

After trauma, brains devote more resources to being on high alert. With so much focus and energy spent constantly scanning surroundings for threats of more trauma, brains begin to physically change following trauma. As brains adapt to maintaining this state of hypervigilance, the amygdala (the part of our brain that searches for threats) physically enlarges as resources are redirected away from the hippocampus (where our ability to make goal-directed decisions and our ability to self-regulate is mostly located).

If brains remain in this constant high threat, high-stress environment – as many childhood trauma survivors experience – their ability to regulate strong emotions is reduced. For this reason, children who previously had an age-appropriate capacity to self-soothe and handle difficult or disappointing experiences but who suddenly become either highly reactive OR unresponsive in response to difficult situations should be screened for trauma. 

An Exercise for Boosting Emotional Regulation

Australia’s Blue Knot Foundation – National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma recommends the following tool:

‘Trauma survivors often have a smaller window of tolerance. This is because our brain is used to threat. […] While sometimes we can’t help it because it’s a biological reaction, we can learn to change it. One way of doing that is through using anchors.

Positive mental images of places can “anchor” our thoughts and feelings.

You could remember a part of your house, a favorite coffee shop, a park, a friend’s house or even a hospital or health center. Or you could imagine a place that you have seen in a magazine, book, TV or movie. As you imagine this place, use your senses.

Try to visualize what it looks like, things you’d see there:

  • Any sounds you’d hear there
  • Any textures, things you’d touch there
  • Any smells
  • Any tastes
  • How does it feel being there?
  • What do you really like about it?

When people begin to exit their window of tolerance, they may experience these signs of distress:

How Developing Better Emotional Regulation Skills Can Build Healthier Relationships

Emotional Regulation is intimately connected to Emotional Maturity – and emotionally mature relationships tend to be more satisfying and sustainable. These healthy, supportive relationships can support lifelong health and success – which is one reason that schools around the world are integrating social emotional learning into their curriculum.

When we have a wide range in our capacity to regulate our emotions, it’s easier to stay engaged in difficult conversations, generative conflicts, and intense interpersonal moments. Getting flooded emotionally has the effect, within the brain, of literally shutting down the brain processes responsible for self-reflection, considering other viewpoints, complex decision making, etc., so knowing boundaries of our own capacity to self-soothe – and getting familiar with the terrain of our partner’s or children’s emotional capacity – can be a way to prevent this emotional flooding, and enable greater self-awareness and healthier relationships. Mindful awareness of the limits of our ability to regulate our emotions increases our capacity to be intentional about the choices we make in all situations – even emotionally-charged ones.

PDF Printable Download

Are you a professional who’d like to use these psychoeducational illustrations in your office or practice? Download the digital resource below or learn more about allowed use under the download licenses.

Rainbow of Emotional Regulation - Educational Illustrations by Lindsay Braman

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For more information on the allowed uses that each of these license types include, click here.

 Digital Assets for Presentations:

Not for reprint except by special permission, the resources available below are designed to be embedded in Powerpoint and Google Slides presentations, as a way to illustrate emotional regulation and the importance of social emotional learning for kids, parents, or professionals. Read more about the permitted uses of this digital illustration bundle

Download these digital assets for teaching modules on social emotional learning.
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Roots & History of this Concept

Researchers and clinicians have been studying the ways that individuals differ in their ability to manage stress, trauma, and overwhelming stimulus since the birth of psychology studies. Dr. Dan Siegel synthesized much of this research plus emerging data from neuroscience when he wrote on the concept of Window of Tolerance in the book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are.

Andrew Seubert & Pam Virdi explain, “Each person has a habitual ‘width’ of the window of tolerance that influences his or her overall ability to process information. People with a wide window can cope with greater extremes of arousal and can process complex and stimulating information more effectively.” (pg 41. Trauma Informed Approaches to Eating Disorders. 2018. ) 

How Emotional Regulation Develops

According to emerging research in psychology and neurobiology, our emotions are an important part of how our minds become organized and integrated as we mature from infancy to late adulthood. Our ability to regulate our emotions is somewhat based on our innate temperament and biological/genetic makeup but is also deeply impacted by our early relationships, attachment history, and how emotions were handled by those who soothed us when we were too young to soothe ourselves.

In other words: the people who have cared for us when we were at our most emotional, and whose emotions have most impacted us – like parents and partners – significantly influence our own ability to regulate our emotions.

“Our early life experiences profoundly impact how our window of tolerance develops, and how we are able to tolerate activation and distress.”

Kathy Kain, Steven Terrell, Peter Levine. p 127. Nurturing Resilience: helping clients move forward from developmental trauma. 2018.
Although our range of emotional regulation ends with a stormcloud, we can learn to recognize the early warning signs and restore emotional equilibrium.

Related Articles + Information:

 I’ve also developed this resource into a social emotional learning worksheet for elementary-aged kids called the Feelings Forecast Emotional Regulation Worksheet.

Some of my other illustrations, worksheets, and resources on emotional regulation and social emotional learning include:

Emotional Regulation & Addiction Treatment

In the past when I have worked with individuals in recovery from substance abuse disorder, this rainbow of emotional regulation has helped many individuals better understand their triggers for substance use. For a brain that is addicted to a substance or behavior, many times the substance (or behavior) is used as a way to cope when emotions become overwhelming. Over time and repeated escape to the addition, the capacity for emotional regulation lessens and even slight triggers can provoke an addicted brain to use.

For example, for an alcohol-addicted-brain, the rainbow might look more like the range of experiences that an individual can experience without experiencing an overwhelming urge to consume alcohol. The storm clouds at either end might represent when they find themselves beyond their ability to cope and feel that they have no choice but to use alcohol to as an external way to regulate.

Emotional Regulation and the Impact of Sustained Stress

If you had a healthy capacity to self-soothe before COVID-19, it’s normal to feel tears well up much easier right now or just want to check out. Feeling like you are more irritable OR more prone to dissociatively soothe emotions through “checking out” is typical during periods of sustained stress. If your capacity to self-soothe was already a little less before a stressful event, you may notice even less flexibility during or immediately after a stressful event.

Rather than forcing yourself to engage when you can’t, give yourself permission to ask for what you need in order to stay present (like breaks, or tabling a conversation until after a meal/walk/etc). Often, just permitting ourselves to move between “ok” and “not ok” without judgment can help make just a little more space to be ok.

As we experience an ongoing pandemic, “stressful” is settling in as the new “normal” in many ways. However, even though it’s now familiar to our emotional brains, we may feel every bit as stressed and helpless as day 1 of quarantine. Recognizing that without judgment may be the first step towards soothing.

 

How to increase emotional regulation (for adults)

Develop awareness and curiosity.

Begin checking in with yourself through self-reflection, journaling, therapy, or meditating. The capacity to self-reflect and notice our emotions can be a first step to developing emotional regulation. People who struggle with alexithymia may find this step especially challenging and can benefit from the help of a therapist. 

Practice grounding techniques when you aren’t upset.

For grounding techniques to work when we are upset, we need to first practice using them when we are calm and already grounded. Get comfortable with mindfulness activities, a grounding card deck, or a self-soothing practice like meditation or yoga. Knowing how to calm yourself when you begin to notice feeling hypoaroused or hyperaroused can be a powerful tool in your toolbox to increase emotional regulation. Create a crisis plan so you know who you can reach out to for support when you are feeling overwhelmed. 

Don’t avoid mildly stressful situations.

There’s a middle ground between diving in headfirst to highly stressful environments and avoiding conflict altogether- but avoidance is, for many of us, a huge hurdle to overcome in increasing emotional regulation. Avoidance has worked for many of us to reduce dysregulation, but as our capacity to self-soothe and regulate grows, exposing ourselves to uncomfortable conversations, contexts, or experiences can be a way to help our brains learn that we can do hard things and still manage our emotions. 

Use grounding skills, social connections, or mindfulness practices to return to calm.

When you’re in a stressful situation (like conflict with a partner, a major personal disappointment, or an uncomfortable work situation), use the tools you’ve practiced to calm yourself down, seek support from the people who care about you, and take breaks from the situation if you can to help yourself grow those “muscles” of emotional regulation.

Continue to practice over time.

Our ability for emotional regulation doesn’t increase overnight – it takes time! Give yourself good care, access to good support, tools, resources, and opportunities to grow. Over time, these small changes add up to big gains in our capacity to manage emotions in upsetting situations. 

Why is emotional regulation is important?

Emotional regulation is essential for kids and adults to be able to experience and enjoy meaningful, significant life experiences. When we have a poor ability to regulate our emotions, this may mean that both very positive emotions and very negative emotions can be overwhelming. For most people with a reduced capacity for emotional regulation, this results in less satisfying relationships because they are less able to stay present in conflicts with friends or partner that could lead to stronger relationships, and less able to be mindful and responsive parents when their child begins to push their buttons. At extremes, people unable to regulate their emotions may turn to substances or harmful behaviors to regulate their emotions, potentially leading to addiction.

How to achieve emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is an ever-changing state. Similar to our physical balance, our bodies – or in this case our brains – are constantly processing information from within and without our body and making minor adjustments. Emotional regulation isn’t an on/off switch, but rather a spectrum – like a rainbow with storm clouds at either end. One way to achieve emotional regulation is to grow an increasing awareness of how particular experiences impact our internal responses, and practicing specific self-soothing tools and strategies to help ourselves calm down when we notice that we are beginning to become emotionally dis-regulated.

Can you learn emotional regulation in adulthood?

Emotional regulation can be learned in adulthood through a combination of skill-building and relationship-building. Healthy relationships increase our capacity for handling challenging experiences, and when healthy, supportive relationships are combined with insight-developing practices (like therapy, yoga, therapy, or mindfulness) and social emotional learning resources (like emotional regulation worksheets, workbooks, or manuals) the benefits of adult learning of emotional regulation is enhanced.

Can emotional regulation be taught?

Emotional regulation skills can be taught – but they also must be felt. A person’s capacity to emotionally regulate begins in infancy (before they’re ever able to speak or understand language) through the empathic care from an attuned caregiver who notices, soothes, and helps an infant calm down from overwhelming experiences. 

Today, many worksheets, lesson plans, and resources are available to teach emotional regulation and other social emotional learning skills, but the effectiveness of these resources is boosted significantly through relational connections like those between a child and caregiver, an attuned teacher and a student, therapist and client, or people in committed healthy friendships and romantic partnerships.

How do emotion regulation abilities develop?

For most people, emotional regulation abilities develop over time as we mature. Depending on genetics, temperament, and the emotional regulation abilities of our caregivers in early life, some of us may need a little more help intentionally developing our capacity to self-soothe and regulate our emotions.

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Maria

Thursday 1st of April 2021

Such a great work! Thank you

sunil

Tuesday 12th of January 2021

Vivid charts give a visual connect instantly . Great work

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