Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

Emotional dysregulation

In this guide, you will learn about different aspects of emotional dysregulation. In addition, we are going to explore a little bit some related aspects. 

Emotional dysregulation 

Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a concept that has been used in the area of mental health for some time and refers to emotional expressions that are handled ineffectively and are not within the accepted spectrum of emotional response. Emotional dysregulation is found in several mental disorders. Some of them are going to be mentioned in this article. 

When emotional dysregulation is mentioned, it is often referred to as a symptom of borderline personality disorder, since in such a disorder the intensity and frequency of the symptom is often evident, which, among other things, makes it very difficult for people with a personality disorder to function on a daily basis. 

Emotional dysregulation can be associated with different factors that have been present throughout the life cycle, such as: early psychological trauma, brain damage, chronic abuse (for example to which a child could be subjected, who is more vulnerable), and also with other related disorders such as reactive attachment disorder. 

As mentioned at the outset, emotional dysregulation, as a symptom, can be found in different mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, among others. The common factor in all these disorders is the manifestation of some or different difficulties in regulating emotions.

How is emotional dysregulation expressed? 

Emotional dysregulation manifests itself in different ways, depending on the context in which it is found. For example, the expression of emotional dysregulation in a person with bipolar disorder and a person with post-traumatic stress disorder is not the same. 

Despite not expressing themselves in exactly the same way, these people have serious difficulties in regulating what they are feeling and how they express it to other people, which is why it becomes a difficulty and a factor that generates discomfort in the midst of other people. 

Other possible manifestations of emotional dysregulation can be outbursts of rage, behavioral outbursts such as throwing objects, assaulting others or even oneself, and can also present threats against other people and oneself; it is possible for a person with emotional dysregulation to harm himself or herself. 

Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

Other ways in which emotional dysregulation can be expressed are as follows:

– Having the feeling of not being understood by the other people around (family, friends, etc.)

– The mood can change very quickly and abruptly, moving from one side to the other without finding a clear explanation. 

– Having the feeling or frequent idea that other people are always leaving you, no matter how you behave.

– Other people always say that they react dramatically or overreact to almost any situation. 

– Accusing or blaming other people just for some thought or idea. 

– Constantly experiencing not only sadness, but also the desire to take one’s own life. 

Why is it not easy for everyone to regulate their emotions?

It is important to mention, in the context of emotional dysregulation, that the skills or abilities to regulate emotions are learned throughout the life cycle, where childhood is of particular importance. Children are not born with these developed skills, so the context in which they live is very important in the development of these skills. 

Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

Children need a relationship with their caregivers, whoever they are, that is high quality in many ways. Children learn emotional regulation skills by observing their caregivers and peers in everyday life and by noticing how others react to their own emotional expressions. Social exchange in this sense is of crucial importance. 

For example, some children may learn during their childhood that it is more useful to think in certain ways and try to solve problems, rather than become overwhelmed when faced with a difficult situation. This, in very simple terms, shows that children can learn different ways of regulating or managing how they feel in everyday life. 

Emotional dysregulation and voluntary action

It is very common for people who live with people with emotional dysregulation to express frustration or anger because they feel that they do not want or are not willing to behave or express their emotions properly. Sometimes it seems that emotional dysregulation is something that is generated voluntarily. However, we will see that the situation is very different. 

As previously mentioned, the skills to regulate emotions are learned throughout the life cycle, so it is very likely that at some point they will become automatic responses. They simply become the way in which, by default, a person reacts to their surrounding environment. Given this, the level of control over these responses is quite small. 

People who suffer from emotional dysregulation often report feeling that life is out of their control and there is nothing they can do about it. They may express a lack of desire to express themselves in an inappropriate way, but at the same time they may find it impossible and/or difficult to express a different response. 

If in your social circle you identify a person with emotional dysregulation (or some mental disorder that has this as a symptom), try to constantly have a perspective on how difficult it is for them to voluntarily take control of a process that often occurs automatically. It’s very challenging for them to become aware of the situation and change their automatic responses. 

What is the process of normal emotional regulation like? 

So far we have only talked about the definition and characteristics of emotional dysregulation, i.e. when something is not right at the end of normal processes. For that reason, we will now mention some aspects related to the normal process of emotional regulation, so that it is possible to have an idea of what people’s way of doing normally is. 

The first step to effective emotional regulation is to allow yourself to feel whatever is happening in the moment. That is, if something happened that made me angry, the best I can do immediately afterwards is to allow all the bodily sensations and ideas I have when I am under the emotion of anger. It is not appropriate to fight the emotion and try to inhibit it. 

Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

It is extremely common for people to try to inhibit their emotional responses for different reasons, so they make an effort to eliminate whatever they are feeling at any given time. They try not to express their emotions because that way they seem to have more control over their own life. 

Finally, it is very important that people have the ability to recognize and put a name to their emotions: anger, sadness, joy, anxiety, disgust, fear. Whatever they are feeling, they must recognize it and put a name to it. In this way, it will be clearer to the whole mental structure what is happening at that moment, and the level of uncertainty, anguish, or lack of control will be lowered. 

Strangely enough, it is common for people not to know what emotion they are feeling, and it can even confuse them. Sometimes they are feeling fear and think that what they are feeling is anger. They may also confuse sadness with anxiety, because sometimes their manifestations are similar. If a person is not able to recognize and name their emotions, the subsequent process of regulation will be much more difficult than usual. Let’s be honest, regulating or modulating what we feel is not an easy task for any of us. 

The last step is to read the situation and the context around me. In other words, what I need to do is to understand where, with whom and under what conditions I am meeting other people. That way, he will know what kind of emotional response is allowed. For example, in a formal situation (work) it would not be allowed to yell or raise your voice, maybe that could be expressed in the context of the home and in a not very aggressive way (without hurting others or yourself). 

On the other hand, if a person is with his friends he may be more enthusiastic or cheerful, and it would not be the same if he is in a meeting with his boss or in a job interview. After the person has followed the above steps, he or she can generate a reflection about himself or herself and the way he or she usually reacts, as well as what is more relevant according to his or her goals and values. For example, for some people it will be more important to be perceived as calm, controlled and “self-controlled”.

Can emotional dysregulation be treated? 

Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

Emotional dysregulation can be treated to improve people’s living conditions. The main thing is to have the opportunity to receive a diagnosis from a specialist. Self-diagnosis should be avoided. Among the most common treatments for emotional dysregulation is a variety of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and is called dialectical behavioral therapy. 

This therapy includes all the usual CBT and also incorporates elements of meditation into the treatment to improve the process of change. Another approach to the treatment of emotional dysregulation is schema therapy. 

Conclusion 

In accordance with all of the above, emotional dysregulation is a term that refers to the difficulty of effectively managing the emotions that are experienced, especially the dimension of their expression (how it is observed “from the outside”). It is a characteristic that can be found in different mental disorders and is expressed in different ways. 

People who have emotional dysregulation are “stubborn” or impossible to treat. They have learned ineffective ways to regulate their emotions and should be understood for that. What they should do, or could do, is engage in a therapeutic process where they can learn new ways of regulating their emotions and emotional expressions. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about emotional dysregulation 

Is emotional dysregulation a mental illness?

Emotional dysregulation can be found as a symptom in a high percentage of mental disorders listed in the DSM-5. For example, people with post-traumatic stress disorder show emotional dysregulation, exhibiting intense fear, anger, or sadness in the face of elements of the past that have been reactivated. 

Is emotional dysregulation the same as BPD?

Emotional dysregulation is not the same as a borderline personality disorder. However, a borderline personality disorder is a mental disorder most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation. 

What causes emotional lability?

Some potential causes of emotional lability are the following: excessive feelings of tiredness or exhaustion, stress and/or anxiety, over-stimulation of the senses (e.g., too much noise), being in a place where there are many people around, being around people who express very strong emotions. 

What is emotional dysregulation ADHD?

Emotional dysregulation can often be found in people with ADHD, which can begin in the childhood period and extend into adulthood. What is an emotionally unstable personality disorder? Emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) is another way that borderline personality disorder (BPD) has been commonly recognized.


Recommended books

  1. Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self
  2. Escaping the Emotional Roller Coaster: ACT for the emotionally sensitive
  3. Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Kids

References

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Emotion Dysregulation
  2. Components of Emotion Dysregulation in Borderline Personality Disorder: A Review
  3. Emotional Dysregulation (Science Direct basics)

Emotional dysregulation (an overview)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.

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