Have you ever gotten so frustrated trying to open a jar of peanut butter that you’ve thrown it straight across the room? Have you ever felt emotionally triggered by a seemingly harmless event or conversation to the point of uncontrollable anger or sadness? Emotional regression is a psychological and physiological occurrence that affects everyone to some degree. Essentially, regression is the reaction we have when something happening in the present moment triggers a memory of something that occurred in the past – usually during childhood. The memory of this past event is frequently subconscious, and initiates a childlike reaction – both physically and emotionally. We regress back to the point in time when this incident actually took place, and act as though we are reliving it.
Red Flags of Emotional Regression
There are several red flags that may indicate emotional regression. Of course, it is much easier to recognize the signs of emotional regression in others than it is to recognize the signs in ourselves. How many times have you told someone close to you to “grow up” when you noticed them acting immaturely or behaving like a child? When we are in a state of regression, however, it is important that we are able to identify our behavioral and emotional patterns and effectively change them. When we regress, we unintentionally work through issues from our past using present-day people and circumstances. People we confront while in a state of emotional regression will likely feel confused, angry, and resentful, and could potentially experience a regression themselves as a direct result. In order to protect our loved ones from our harmful behavior, and to protect ourselves from unnecessary embarrassment and remorse, we must learn to identify these red flags.
Identifying Red Flags
Losing control of your physical reactions and raging or going into hysterics is one of the most common symptoms of emotional regression. Adults remain in control of the way they respond to situations, thus those who lose control are clearly in a state of regression. Of course, all adults feel anger and sadness from time-to-time. But when they do undergo such emotions, they are able to release them from their bodies in mature and healthy ways. There is a big difference between feeling an emotion and acting it out. For example, an emotionally mature adult might cry on the shoulder of a close friend after losing a dear pet. An emotionally regressed individual might flail about dramatically, crying uncontrollably in a public place. An emotionally mature adult might scream into a pillow or take a long run when feeling overcome with anger, where as a regressed individual might punch a hole through a wall – or punch another person.
- Distorted Sense of Time
If time seems to fly by far too quickly or pass by unnaturally slowly, dragging on forever, you may be experiencing some level of emotional regression. Remember when you were a small child, waiting for your favorite holiday to roll around? When in reality Christmas was only a week away, it may have seemed like you had been waiting months to open the presents sitting patiently under the tree. When you feel as if you need something (or someone) immediately, you are probably running on ‘Child Time’. When time begins rushing by or standing still, it may be time to grow yourself back up.
- Muddled Communication Skills
When you are emotionally regressed, you may initiate a conversation, only to wind up so frazzled and far away from your original point after two hours of incessant bickering that you can’t remember what you were talking about in the first place. When you feel anxious or afraid, you are likely to regress by talking far too much – and you likely will not be able to draw any kind of valid conclusions. On the other hand, when you are feeling nervous, neglected, or overwhelmed, you may regress by shutting down completely. The ‘silent treatment’ – a form of passive punishment we likely utilized in early adolescence – may make an unwelcome reappearance when we feel afraid or agitated. By growing ourselves up, we will be able to find a happy medium. We will be able to communicate clearly and effectively, portraying our emotional requirements in an assertive and beneficial manner.
- Feeling Powerless
Another major red flag when it comes to emotional regression is feeling as if you must do something that you do not want to do. When we are children, we are rarely given the freedom to make our own decisions. “Tonight we are having chicken and green beans, and you must eat all of your beans if you want dessert!” “You must clean your room before the leaving the house!” “You must wear the clothes I laid out for you!” “You must do your homework!” As mature adults, we always have a choice. We have a choice when it comes to handling situations, no matter what situation arises. When we are young, we have a wide range of behaviors modeled for us by our primary caretakers. We may grow up believing that we must act the way they did – but as we get older, we realize that this is not the case. In order to overcome emotional regression, we must recognize and honor our power of choice.
- Asking Childish Questions
If you tend to ask questions driven solely by emotionally insecurity, you may be regressing. Oftentimes, we make enormous assumptions and predictions without adequate investigation or evidence. We ask the same kinds of questions that a small child might ask: “Do you love me?” “Am I good enough?” The mature questions, the ones we should be asking, are more along the lines of: “How well am I loving?” “Where am I falling short, and where can I improve?”
- Being Nosey
This is a very common red flag, though it can be exceptionally subtle. Mature adults understand that they have enough going in their own day-to-day lives to worry about, while those in regression may begin focusing too much on the business of other people. You may feel that what your spouse or child is doing with his or her free time is undeniably your business – but from a real adult perspective, it simply is not. Of course, the actions of other people may directly affect you. And how you feel about these specific actions is always your business. Mature adults focus more on how other people affect them and why than what they can do to change the behaviors of others.
- Physical Symptoms
One of the best ways to tell whether or not you are emotionally regressing is by paying close attention to physical cues. If you begin profusely sweating or shivering uncontrollably, you may be regressing. Your heart rate may increase dramatically, and your palms may become clammy and cold. In most cases, these physical symptoms will occur before or during a high-stress situation. Perhaps your boss has called you into his office for a chat, or you are meeting up with a blind date for the very first time. Such reactions are normal, but they are also temporary and exceedingly minor. If you experience physical symptoms that are either seemingly inexplicable or last for an unusual amount of time, it may be time to grow yourself back up.
Mature Adults Respond – Regressed Individuals React
So how do we grow ourselves back up once we have identified the red flags of regression? As John Lee suggests in his comprehensive book, there are five main ways in which we can get a handle on emotional regression and begin functioning like healthy, emotionally mature adults.
Attention, the kind described in the book ‘Growing Yourself Back Up’, does not have to do with teaching, preaching, or offering advice. The kind of attention we need as adults has to do with attentive and patient understanding – the ability to be heard and accepted as we are. In order to receive this kind of loving attention, however, we must first recognize that we need it, and that we are deserving of it. The first step is giving this kind of attention to ourselves; listening to ourselves honestly and openly. This takes ample practice, but such a beneficial level of self-awareness and tolerance certainly can be achieved!
Empathy differs from sympathy in the sense that the individual who is experiences empathy understands, first hand, what the concerned individual is undergoing – likely because the empathizer has gone through something exceedingly similar. On the other, sympathy entails that we feel what the other person is feeling. We might catch their resentment or anger like a cold, rather than appreciating and supporting on a distinctive but relatable level. When we experience empathy, our feelings are our own – and the person we are empathizing with maintains ownership of his feelings, as well. Only when dealing with children or the elderly is sympathy the most beneficial response.
In some cases, all we need to grow ourselves back up is a bit of time and patience. We cannot put a timeframe on emotions. Not on grief, not on anger, not on elation. Allowing ourselves to experience our feelings as they occur can be extremely therapeutic, especially when we acknowledge, accept, and appreciate them as they are. Time is an essential ingredient in all successful relationships. Feelings cannot be rushed.
Appropriate touch can do wonders for assisting an individual in growing back up. Just as inappropriate touch can do immense damage, healthy and beneficial touch can heal on a deep and powerful level. In learning the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, and learning how to self-soothe through the power of positive touch, we can help to heal ourselves emotionally. We at Next Chapter teach our patients the healing and transformative power of appropriate touch, through exercises such as therapeutic massage and practicing self-awareness.
As a country, we Americans are not too big on openly releasing emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, and even joy. We tend to be reserved, learning from a young age that over-emotionality is the way of weakness. You may have had a non-emotive parent who would pat you on the shoulder as soon as your eyes welled up with tears, instructing, “Now, now, don’t be sad.” While actions and words like these are meant to be comforting, they may encourage you to deny your feelings as they arise. Stifling emotions for years at a time is normal by American standards – but it is also extremely unhealthy! Emotional release is perhaps the most crucial component of overcoming emotional regression. Release comes in many healthy and effective shapes and forms, such as: yelling, screaming, stomping, tearing, breaking, throwing, running, laughing, crying, and breathing. The first step of emotional releasing is allowing yourself to participate. Give yourself permission to release your feelings, and then find an effective way of doing so. Remember not to release your emotions at another person. Find a safe space in which you can throw eggs at a tree and scream, or throw a private and self-aware tantrum.
Healing From Emotional Regression
We at next Chapter focus on recovering from emotional regression, and spend ample time teaching each of our patients to begin handling present situations in the most mature and beneficial manner. We understand that in order for one to successfully overcome emotional regression, he must become skilled in attention, empathy, touch, time, and release. For more information on our therapeutic program of trauma and substance abuse recovery, please feel free to contact us today. And more additional information on emotional regression, please see our recent blog post.