Understanding Emotions: 10 Tips to Help Clients

As therapists and counsellors, we know that emotions play a crucial role in our clients’ lives, influencing their thoughts, behaviours, and relationships. But what exactly are emotions, and how can we help our clients manage and regulate them effectively?

In this post we draw on the work of experts such as Tony Buckley, Deb Dana, Stephen Porges, and Dan Siegel. We provide a definition of emotions and affect regulation, followed by ten tips and strategies for helping our clients manage their feelings and emotions.

What are emotions?

Emotions are complex psychological experiences that involve a range of physiological, cognitive, and behavioural responses. They are typically characterised by subjective feelings, such as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, which can be accompanied by bodily changes, such as increased heart rate, sweating, or muscle tension. Emotions also involve cognitive appraisals, in which we evaluate and judge our experiences and interpret them as positive or negative.

Affect regulation: Definition and Importance

Affect regulation refers to the ability to manage and regulate our emotions effectively. It involves a range of cognitive, behavioural, and physiological strategies that enable us to modulate our emotional responses and maintain a state of emotional balance. Effective affect regulation is critical for mental health, as people who struggle to regulate their emotions are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems.

Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation can manifest as intense or extreme emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation, or as difficulty in controlling emotional responses such as crying or anger. Dysregulation can also lead to difficulty in managing the day to day stresses in life, as well as impulsivity, and poor decision-making. One of the goals of therapy therefore can be to work with helping clients improve their emotional regulation skills.

Trauma and Affect Regulation

Trauma and affect regulation are closely intertwined, as traumatic experiences can significantly impact a person’s ability to regulate their emotions. Trauma refers to experiences that are by definition emotionally overwhelming, resulting in a range of physical and psychological symptoms. Traumatic experiences can be acute, such as a car accident or a natural disaster, or they can be chronic, such as ongoing abuse or neglect.

Traumatic experiences can disrupt affect regulation by overwhelming the brain’s ability to process and regulate emotions. This can lead to a range of emotional dysregulation symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and dissociation. It can also lead to difficulties in interpersonal relationships, as people who have experienced trauma may struggle to trust others and may have difficulty regulating their emotions in social situations. In this situation, building a strong therapeutic alliance can be essential to effective healing within the therapeutic relationship.

Allan N. Schore & Affect Regulation

Allan N. Schore is a prominent figure in the field of neuroscience and psychotherapy, particularly in the area of affect regulation, and helping clients to manage their emotions. Schore’s work has focused on the study of the brain and its relationship to emotional development and regulation, and he has been a key figure in integrating findings from developmental neuroscience into clinical practice.

Schore’s research has shown that early experiences of attachment and relationship formation have a profound impact on the development of the brain and the ability to regulate emotions throughout life. Specifically, he has highlighted the role of the right hemisphere of the brain in emotional regulation and has emphasised the importance of the therapist-client relationship in facilitating affect regulation and healing emotional wounds.

Schore’s work has influenced the development of several therapeutic approaches, including attachment-based therapies, somatic therapies, and mindfulness-based interventions. He has also emphasised the importance of integrating neurobiological knowledge into psychotherapy practice, particularly in understanding the underlying neural mechanisms of emotional regulation, and how to work with clients struggling with emotional dysregulation.

How we can help clients with Affect Regulation

Drawing on this work and our growing understanding of the nervous system and brain development, therapists have a growing toolbox at their disposal to help clients manage their emotions. Here we have put together 10 tips and ideas that you might like to explore in your work.

Tip 1: Help Clients Understand the Window of Tolerance

One of the key concepts in affect regulation is the “window of tolerance,” a term coined by Dan Siegel. The window of tolerance refers to the range of emotional states in which an individual can function effectively. It includes a state of calm and relaxation, as well as a moderate level of arousal that allows for engagement and effective problem-solving. When an individual’s emotions exceed the upper or lower limits of the window of tolerance, they may become overwhelmed or dysregulated, leading to emotional and behavioural problems. Helping clients understand the concept of the window of tolerance can be an effective way to increase their awareness of their emotional states and develop strategies for regulating their emotions.

NICABM Window of Tolerance Graphic

Image source: 

Tip 2: Teach Clients to Recognise Their Triggers

One of the first steps in affect regulation is recognising the triggers that activate our emotional responses. These triggers can be internal (such as thoughts or memories) or external (such as situations or people). By helping clients identify their triggers, we can help them develop strategies for managing their emotional responses and avoiding situations that may be overwhelming or dysregulating.

Tip 3: Encourage Clients to Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for affect regulation, as it helps individuals become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment, allowing individuals to observe their emotional responses without becoming overwhelmed by them. Encouraging clients to practice mindfulness can help them develop greater emotional awareness and regulate their emotions more effectively.

Tip 4: Teach Clients Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can be a simple and effective way to regulate the physiological components of emotional responses, such as increased heart rate and muscle tension. Techniques such as deep breathing or box breathing may help clients slow down their breathing and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation and emotional regulation.

However, it is important to also be cautious when using breathing techniques with some therapy clients, for example people who have ADHD, as breathing exercises can have the opposite impact and exacerbate their symptoms. In such cases, other therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness or cognitive behavioural therapy may be more effective.

Tip 5: Help Clients Develop Self-Compassion

Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, even in the face of difficult emotions. By helping clients develop self-compassion, we can help them reduce self-criticism and increase self-care, which can in turn promote emotional regulation and well-being.

Tip 6: Teach Clients the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise

The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise is a technique that involves engaging the senses to promote emotional regulation and reduce feelings of anxiety or overwhelm. The exercise involves focusing on:

• 5 things you can see
• 4 things you can touch
• 3 things you can hear
• 2 things you can smell
• 1 thing you can taste

By engaging the senses in this way, clients can bring their attention to the present moment and shift their focus away from overwhelming thoughts or emotions.

Tip 7: Encourage Physical Activity

Physical activity is a powerful tool for regulating emotions, as it can help reduce stress and increase the production of endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Encouraging clients to engage in regular exercise, such as walking, running, or yoga, can be an effective way to promote emotional regulation and overall well-being.

Tip 8: Help Clients Build a Support System

Social support is crucial for emotional regulation, as it can provide individuals with a sense of connection, validation, and comfort. Encouraging clients to build a support system, whether through friends, family, or community resources, can be an important part of promoting emotional regulation.

Tip 9: Teach Clients Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal is a cognitive technique that involves reframing one’s thoughts about a situation or emotion in order to change the emotional response. By helping clients identify and challenge negative or distorted thoughts, we can help them develop more adaptive and positive appraisals of their experiences, which can in turn promote emotional regulation.

Tip 10: Utilise Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, and applied to therapy by Deb Dana, is a theory that explores the role of the nervous system in emotional regulation. According to the theory, the body’s nervous system responds to stress and threat in three distinct ways: a “fight or flight” response, a “freeze” response, and a “social engagement” response. By helping clients understand the role of their nervous system in emotional regulation, we can help them develop strategies for activating the social engagement system, which is associated with feelings of safety, connection, and regulation.


Effective emotional regulation is crucial for mental health and well-being. By utilising strategies such as the window of tolerance, mindfulness, breathing exercises, self-compassion, grounding exercises, physical activity, social support, cognitive reappraisal, and polyvagal theory, we can help our clients develop the skills and resources they need to manage and regulate their emotions effectively.

Online CPD

Would you like to learn about affect regulation in the context of Polyvagal Theory? Watch our online CPD training with Dr Nicole Schnackenberg (see trailer below).

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