We all experience strong emotions from time to time.
As humans, we constantly experience a mixture of feelings and emotions, including sadness, joy, anger and excitement, to name just a few.
These are all perfectly normal emotions.
However, when we experience anger, one of the less pleasant emotions of the bunch, we can often feel guilty, ashamed, and even isolated.
Experiencing negative emotions is not a bad thing
Experiencing negative emotions may not always feel pleasant.
However, the presence of a negative emotion doesn’t necessarily make that emotion terrible or something to be ashamed of; it’s just a feeling, and as we all know, feelings have a habit of changing with the wind.
Emotions are fluid; they come and go depending on various factors. And whatever form a person’s feelings may take, they are part of the unique human experience.
But what happens when your emotions become too challenging to manage, occur too often or appear out of nowhere?
Suppose you have difficulty returning to an emotional ‘baseline’ or feel like you cannot control or regulate your emotions after experiencing anger or disappointment.
In that case, you may be suffering from emotional dysregulation.
What is emotional dysregulation?
There are many different explanations for emotional dysregulation.
Some psychologists say dysregulation occurs when a person cannot manage their emotions or feelings; for example, they cannot control feelings of anger, sorrow, or anxiety.
On the other hand, some mental health professionals define dysregulation as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response” (What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychology Today, Tchiki Davis, PhD, August 23, 2021).
Managing dysregulated emotions
In our experience, there are various ways to get help with emotional dysregulation, including:
- Breathing exercises
- Physical exercise
- Therapy (including working on acceptance strategies).
You do not have to suffer alone
If you have difficulty controlling your emotions and are worried about where these feelings come from or how to manage them, you might find it helpful to speak to a mental health professional.
Various treatments can help with emotional dysregulation, and you do not have to suffer in silence. Contact a White River Manor specialist today for further advice and support.
What are examples of dysregulation?
Studies show that when people exhibit extreme or severe emotional dysregulation, they likely suffer from a mental health disorder.
Emotional dysregulation is often a key symptom of the following mental health conditions:
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Foetal alcohol syndrome
- Disruptive mood regulation disorder
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
However, it would help if you remembered that not everyone who experiences problems with emotional dysregulation has a mental health disorder.
People who have problems with emotional dysregulation experience profound difficulty managing their emotions.
For instance, a person with emotion dysregulation disorder may be unable to self-soothe when complicated feelings arise, such as anger, sadness or disappointment.
If a friend cancels plans at the last minute, a person with emotional dysregulation may be unable to control their disappointment or anger. Perhaps they burst into boiling rage or storm off before the other person can explain their reasons for cancelling.
People experiencing emotional dysregulation may also find it hard to return to ‘normal’ after these feelings have surfaced.
Symptoms of emotional dysregulation
Individuals with emotional dysregulation may experience various emotions or symptoms that may confuse or frighten them, including the following:
- Severe anxiety
- Sudden, angry outbursts
- Self-harm to cope with unpleasant feelings
- Feelings of shame and confusion
- An inability to deal with stress
- Profound mood swings or changes in mood
- Suicide ideation (or behaviours)
- Substance abuse.
If you think you have any of the above symptoms, speak to a mental health professional who can advise you on the most effective treatments to help you manage your symptoms and cope.
Nervous system dysregulation
Studies show that emotional dysregulation can cause severe disruption to an individual’s nervous system.
In times of danger or threat, our body engages in the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response to help us survive whatever is happening in our immediate environment.
These responses are automatic and serve as part of the body’s natural survival instinct; these reactions can be helpful and protect us from imminent danger or harm.
However, when a person’s nervous system is dysregulated, they may continue engaging in these responses, even when no danger or threat is present.
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Psychologists say that emotional dysregulation often puts people outside their window of tolerance (a mental state where individuals can manage their emotions without becoming overwhelmed).
All this makes sense if you look at how the condition presents itself.
Because of how unpleasant emotional dysregulation can be, those with the condition may engage in destructive coping mechanisms to manage their distress, including:
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviours
- Substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs and prescription medications
- Problems with impulsivity
- An inability to accept specific situations and emotions.
Gratz and Roemer (2004) defined emotional dysregulation as “a complex collection of processes” that involve four primary components:
- A lack of adaptive strategies for controlling emotions, including the length and intensity.
- A significant lack of awareness and acceptance of emotions.
- An unwillingness (or inability) to participate in goal-oriented behaviours when experiencing distress.
- Avoidance of difficult emotions, for instance, a person may be unwilling to experience emotional distress while pursuing desired goals (What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychology Today, Tchiki Davis, PhD, August 23, 2021).
Various psychological therapies can help address these collective issues, allowing individuals to accept their emotions better and be willing to tolerate any challenging or unpleasant feelings.
Recent studies show that early psychological trauma, such as abuse or neglect (from a parent or caregiver), is a leading cause of emotional dysregulation.
Reactive attachment disorder
Psychologists describe this type of trauma as ‘reactive attachment disorder’. Unfortunately, parents or caregivers with emotional dysregulation do not have the resources or knowledge to teach their children how to regulate their emotions.
Emotion regulation is a ‘learned’ skill
Because children are not born with emotional regulation skills, they need to be modelled and taught. Having a parent who cannot model effective coping puts a child at risk for emotional dysregulation themselves (What Is Dysregulation? Verywell mind, Arlin Cuncic, November 14, 2022).
In addition, a 2013 study showed a direct association between childhood trauma and emotional dysregulation in borderline personality disorder (What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychcentral, Traci Pedersen, November 20, 2022).
Implications of emotional dysregulation
An inability to manage your emotions can negatively affect various aspects of your life and overall health. These effects include:
- Interpersonal relationship issues, for example, a minor problem that gets blown out of proportion, may result in your relationships becoming damaged or ruined.
- Problems sleeping.
- Holding onto anger or struggling to forgive others.
- Engaging in destructive behaviours to help you cope with unpleasant feelings, such as alcohol or drug use.
- Experiencing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, as a result of not being able to regulate your emotions.
Treatment for emotional dysregulation
Treatment for emotional dysregulation typically includes a combination of medication and therapy.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is one of the most effective treatments for emotional dysregulation disorders.
Treatment involves the following components:
- Validating and accepting your emotions
- Engaging in healthy behaviours and habits
- Learning how to regulate your emotions
People with emotional dysregulation disorders tend to think in black-and-white terms.
All this may make you view situations or people as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, meaning that you cannot always see the bigger picture.
Dialectical behaviour therapy helps you focus on the present moment, including becoming aware of your perceptions, emotions and behaviours, allowing you to manage distressing situations or events better.
DBT helps people regulate emotions by balancing their feelings with logic, which may help them achieve more positive outcomes when dealing with stressful events or situations.
Ultimately, therapy aims to help you manage your emotions and live a more fulfilling, healthier life.
It’s not uncommon for our emotions to fluctuate now and then.
However, if you frequently find yourself becoming overwhelmed or struggling with intense emotions that are hard to manage, there’s a chance you might be experiencing emotional dysregulation.
Fortunately, there are various ways of treating emotional dysregulation, and with proper help and support, you can begin to feel more in control of your feelings and regain balance in your life.
White River Manor can help.
We specialise in treating various mental health disorders and addictions at White River Manor.
Our multidisciplinary team diagnoses and treats various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders and emotional dysregulation.
The first recommended step is to speak to a mental health professional about your concerns. Then, between you and your therapist, you can make a treatment plan tailored to suit your individual needs and treatment goals.
- What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychcentral, Traci Pedersen, November 20, 2022
- What Is Dysregulation? Verywell mind, Arlin Cuncic, November 14, 2022
- What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychology Today, Tchiki Davis, PhD August 23, 2021
- What Is Emotional Dysregulation? Psychcentral, Traci Pedersen, November 20, 2022