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How to regulate your emotions in 4 easy steps

By: Samuel Ma (Clinical Psychology Registrar) & Dr Anastasia Hronis (Clinical Psychologist)

Emotions drive behaviour, and form an essential part of our lives. Most of the time, they keep us safe, help build meaningful relationships, and motivate us to work towards goals that align with our values.

However, emotions that recur frequently and intensely can interfere with day-to-day life. In the context of gambling, acting on some of these emotions can be harmful, and cause lapses on the road to recovery.

An important exercise can be to consider which emotions make you more vulnerable to gambling. For some people, emotions such as anxiety, anger, shame, guilt or sadness can be triggers for gambling. For others, it may be excitement or happiness that leads to the desire to gamble.

A useful tool to help regulate your emotions is one that psychologists call ‘opposite action’. This is a tool from a type of therapy called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Essentially, opposite action helps us engage in activities that are ‘opposite’ to those of which we are feeling.

To use ‘opposite action’ follow these easy steps:

1: Identify the emotion that you are feeling and that you want to change (e.g., sadness, shame).

2: Check whether the emotion you are feeling is proportional to the situation you are experiencing. Ask yourself, does the intensity of my emotion fit the situation?

3: Think about what behaviour this emotion makes you want to do.

  • Will this action be effective?
  • Does it align with your future goals and values?
  • What would the opinion of a trusted, loved one be?

4: If you come to the decision that acting in this way won’t be helpful or effective for you, it’s time to think about some opposite behaviours to try.

Here's an example:

Emma arrives home following a challenging day at work. She identifies that she is feeling sad. She is experiencing self-critical talk (“I should have been more competent at work today”), a sense of lethargy and disinterest.

Emma notes that the intensity of her sadness does not match the situation. Although she encountered difficulties on a work project, Emma was praised by her colleagues for her strong efforts. Emma then identifies that she has the urge to escape the sadness by isolating herself, going to the local RSL to drink and play the pokies.

This a common pattern that distracts her from the ever-present sadness she has been experiencing recently. Emma recognises that this does not align with her goal to find healthier ways to cope, or her values on what is important in her life (e.g. spending time with family rather than isolating).

As a result, Emma uses the opposite action technique. Emma considers alternatives: organising a meal with relatives, going for a brief walk in the nearby park, or calling a trusted friend to talk about her work day. She practises opposite action on this occasion, as well as in the weeks thereafter.

Some common opposite actions psychologists may suggest are:

Fear - rather than avoiding the feared situation, actively approach it.

Anger - rather than act defensively, gently express how you feel.

Shame - rather than conceal how you feel, share with a trusted loved one.

Opposite action is an important emotion regulation tool because it places you in the ‘driver’s seat’ of your emotions. Your behaviours start to shape your emotional response, rather than the other way around. It is a simple, yet empowering strategy that you can start using today.

For more support on this topic or any gambling issue you might want to talk about, call Gambler’s Help on 1800 858 858.


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