Have you ever felt like your anger just gets the best of you? You’ve tried to stop yourself from exploding during an argument, but your efforts are fruitless. It’s not that you don’t want to control yourself; you just don’t know how.
Dysregulation is a way of describing someone who struggles with extremes. On one end, they can remain incredibly calm and placid; on the other, they can become extremely excitable energy-filled people.
When you go through an emotional situation, it can be easy to feel like everything is falling apart. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the case. Sometimes, we can become overwhelmed and feel like we’re losing it, but that’s not reality.
In this article, I discuss emotional dysregulation, its underlying mechanisms, and its implications for therapist training, supervision, and clinical practice.
What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
You may find yourself feeling frustrated, angry, or irritated much of the time. You might feel on edge, waiting for something bad to happen. Or you may feel like you can’t get anything done because you’re so upset by what’s happening around you.
Emotions are our body’s way of signaling that something is wrong or needs attention. Emotional dysregulation means that the messages your emotions send aren’t getting through to your brain in a way that allows you to take appropriate action.
Causes Contributing to Emotional Dysregulation
Emotional dysregulation is hard to experience, describe and understand for yourself. It may be even harder if you are on the outside of it, looking in, trying to help someone else through it. Understanding the contributing factors to emotional dysregulation can help you to understand what is happening inside someone else.
The exact cause of emotional dysregulation isn’t known, but research suggests several factors may be involved:
Genetics may play a role in causing emotional dysregulation. If your parents have had similar problems with emotions, there is a greater chance that you will also experience them.
Genetic predisposition does not mean that you are doomed to experience the same problems with emotions as your parents did, but it does increase the likelihood that you will struggle with these issues at some point in your life.
2. Brain Chemistry
The brain comprises neurotransmitters that help the brain communicate with itself, the nervous system, and body organs.
When these chemicals don’t function correctly, they can cause problems with mood and behavior.
An individual’s environment can also influence emotional dysregulation. For example, children who grow up in homes with a lot of conflict between parents tend to develop emotional problems as adults.
Similarly, children who grow up in homes with physical or emotional abuse are more likely to have difficulty regulating emotions as adults.
4. Traumatic experience
Traumatic experiences can also contribute to difficulties with emotional regulation later in life.
For example, people who have survived abuse or violence often have trouble developing healthy relationships later in life because they fear being harmed again by others.
Symptoms and Signs of Emotional Dysregulation
Emotional dysregulation is a condition that causes one to have intense feelings and emotions that are not well-regulated. The person may feel these emotions intensely, have difficulty controlling them, or inappropriately act on them.
The symptoms of emotional dysregulation include:
- Emotional outbursts or out-of-control anger
- Difficulty controlling your emotions
- Feelings of sadness that last for days or weeks, or months at a time
- Feeling anxious or nervous all the time (even when there’s nothing to be anxious about)
- Trouble sleeping due to worrying about things you can’t control
Strategies for Managing Emotional Dysregulation in Children
Emotional dysregulation is a common problem among children with ADHD, making it difficult to interact with others. The following strategies can help parents manage their child’s emotional dysregulation:
- Explain your child’s behavior.
- Work with your child to develop an “emotion chart.”
- Encourage your child to identify his feelings in words rather than actions or behaviors.
- Validate your child’s emotions by acknowledging that his feelings are valid even if they seem exaggerated or out of proportion (e.g., “I know you’re angry that I told you no about watching TV after dinner, but there’s no reason to scream at me”).
- Set limits on negative emotions when they become excessive or destructive (e.g., “I know you’re mad at me right now, but please don’t kick the chair”).
Emotional Dysregulation vs. Emotional Intensity
Emotional dysregulation and emotional intensity are two different things that can be separated by the difference between their causes, symptoms, and treatments.
Emotional dysregulation is when an individual has trouble dealing with their emotions. They may feel like they have no control over their emotions or moods or feel like their emotions are out of control. This can lead to serious problems in relationships and other areas of life.
Emotional intensity is a term used to describe a highly sensitive person and responsive to their environment. This means that they tend to experience their feelings more strongly than others do and react strongly when something upsets them.
Emotional intensity is not the same as emotional dysregulation; it’s simply a way of describing someone empathetic and expressive rather than someone who has trouble managing feelings. Here’s a quick differentiation between emotional dysregulation and emotional intensity:
|Emotional Dysregulation||Emotional Intensity|
|Characterized by difficulties in controlling emotions and reactions||Refers to the strength, depth, and quality of emotions experienced|
|Involves significant mood swings, sudden changes in mood, or emotional lability||Emotionally intense individuals may experience emotions more deeply and exhibit profound emotional connections|
|Often linked to mental health disorders||An innate trait not necessarily linked to mental health disorders|
|Can result in reactions that are disproportionate to the situation at hand||Emotional intensity in itself may not be problematic, but can become so if it leads to challenges in regulating one’s emotions|
Strategies for Managing Emotional Dysregulation
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to managing emotional dysregulation, here are several strategies that can help:
1. Identifying triggers and patterns
The first step in working with triggers is to identify them. This is easier said than done. The most common way to do this is by journaling or tracking your emotions, situations, and environments over time. If you feel dysregulated at a particular time of day or in a specific situation, then it’s likely that a trigger is involved.
Once you’ve identified your triggers, you must ask yourself why these events are causing you distress. What about them makes you feel bad? Is it the event itself or something else?
For example, suppose an argument with your partner triggers you. In that case, it’s not the argument itself but rather the fact that it happened in front of other people or made you feel powerless and unable to resolve things peacefully.
Understanding what causes you to feel dysregulated helps you understand how to reduce your stress levels when you find yourself in similar situations again.
2. Developing healthy coping skills
Learn and practice techniques like distraction, grounding exercises, relaxation techniques, or writing to manage intense emotional reactions.
2.1. Distraction: When you feel an intense emotion coming on, try to distract yourself with something else. You can do this by calling someone, walking around the block, taking a shower, or doing another activity that takes your mind off what’s bothering you.
2.2. Grounding exercises: They help you remember what’s real and happening right now by bringing your attention back to your bodily sensations (see below).
2.3. Relaxation techniques: These include breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Some people find yoga helpful too.
2.4. Writing as a form of self-expression: Writing down what you are feeling while still fresh in your mind can help process intense emotions — especially if you can write without thinking about how others might react to what you wrote.
3. Emotional regulation techniques
Emotional expression is often a powerful tool to help manage intense emotions. That’s why it’s important to express your feelings healthily.
Techniques such as cognitive restructuring, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation can help manage intense emotions.
3.1. Cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is a technique that involves changing the way you think about a situation. For example, if someone has upset you and you start thinking they did it on purpose, cognitive restructuring would involve challenging that thought by asking yourself why they might have acted the way they did.
Could it be because they didn’t know what they were doing? Or maybe they were afraid of something?
3.2. Deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing exercises are another technique that can help manage intense feelings. When you feel stressed or anxious, your bodies release adrenaline and cortisol hormones, raising your heart rate and tensing you.
Deep breathing exercises are designed to slow down this process by helping you breathe more slowly and deeply, which helps reduce stress levels.
3.3. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is another type of exercise that encourages deep breathing in combination with tensing and relaxing muscles around your body one by one. This helps promote feelings of calmness and reduce stress levels that may contribute to emotional dysregulation.
4. Establishing a support network
If you’re struggling with emotional dysregulation, it’s important to find support.
Many people can help you manage your emotions. For example,
Therapists and psychiatrists can provide guidance on how to manage your emotions and understand why they’re happening. They can also help you develop coping strategies to reduce intensity or frequency.
Friends and family members can provide emotional support and encouragement when feeling down or anxious.
Feeling heard and understood can be soothing and provide insights when dealing with emotional dysregulation
5. Self-care routines
Self-care is an important part of managing your emotions. Self-care means prioritizing your own physical, mental, and emotional needs. It’s not selfish; it’s essential to your well-being.
5.1. You can incorporate regular self-care into your daily routine by incorporating these self-care routines into your life:
5.2. Regular physical activity. Exercising regularly improves sleep quality, boosts energy levels, and reduces stress hormones.
5.3. A healthy diet. Eating nutritious food can help regulate moods, boost energy and reduce anxiety.
5.4. Quality sleep. Sleep is essential for healthy functioning, including proper stress response. A lack of sleep has been shown to increase feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as impair concentration and memory function.
5.5. Time for enjoyment and relaxation. Taking time for enjoyment allows you to recharge your batteries and helps keep you grounded in reality when things are stressful or overwhelming in your life.
6. Professional help
Professional help is often necessary when severe emotional dysregulation affects your quality of life. You may need to work with a therapist to learn new emotional management skills and strategies.
Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on helping people learn how to effectively regulate their emotions to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. It teaches skills like mindfulness and emotion regulation so people can respond differently when faced with stressful situations.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most widely used therapies for treating mental health issues. It focuses on identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to feelings of distress and finding more effective ways to cope with them.
Ease Your Emotional Dysregulation
If you’re good at regulating your emotions, that’s fantastic! Get on with that. However, if you have difficulty regulating your emotions, and perhaps this is even negatively impacting certain aspects of your life, then help is available.
Please don’t let the “therapy” word be off-putting; therapy can be as simple as helping you develop more effective ways of managing your emotions. It’s all worth it, though—you’ll be happier, healthier, and better overall.
As they say: the first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists in the first place—and hopefully, we’ve done that for you today. Good luck to all those who are striving to become better emotional self-regulators.
What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is a mental symptom involving difficulties controlling one’s emotions and reacting appropriately to situations. It can manifest as dramatic mood swings, emotional lability, or reactions that appear disproportionate to the situation.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation may result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It is often associated with mental health disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), ADHD, and PTSD. Moreover, it may also develop due to adverse childhood experiences, such as trauma or a lack of proper nurturing.
How to Deal with Emotional Dysregulation?
Effectively dealing with emotional dysregulation often involves psychotherapy, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), medication, and building emotional regulation skills. These skills include mindfulness, identifying triggers, using grounding techniques, and seeking social support from friends, family, or mental health professionals.
How to Help a Child with Emotional Dysregulation?
Helping a child with emotional dysregulation requires patience, understanding, and targeted interventions. Create a safe and supportive environment to encourage skill development, such as emotional expression, problem-solving, and self-regulation. Collaboration with mental health professionals is essential to ensure the child receives appropriate therapeutic support.
How Long Does It Take to Overcome Emotional Dysregulation?
The time needed to overcome emotional dysregulation varies among individuals and is influenced by factors such as the severity of the dysregulation, commitment to therapy, and development of regulation skills]. Recovery may take months or even years, but consistent effort and dedication to therapeutic goals can lead to significant improvement.
- Andersson, H., Aspeqvist, E., Dahlström, R., Svedin, C. G., Jonsson, L. S., Landberg, S., & Zetterqvist, M. (2022, July 28). Emotional Dysregulation and Trauma Symptoms Mediate the Relationship Between Childhood Abuse and Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Adolescents. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.897081
- Compare, A., Zarbo, C., Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Marconi, C. (2014, June 22). Emotional Regulation and Depression: A Potential Mediator between Heart and Mind. Cardiovascular Psychiatry and Neurology, 2014, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/324374
- Mohammadi Bytamar, J., Saed, O., & Khakpoor, S. (2020, November 4). Emotion Regulation Difficulties and Academic Procrastination. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.524588
- Dvir, Y., Ford, J. D., Hill, M., & Frazier, J. A. (2014, May). Childhood Maltreatment, Emotional Dysregulation, and Psychiatric Comorbidities. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 22(3), 149–161. https://doi.org/10.1097/hrp.0000000000000014