What is Emotion Dysregulation?
By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you’ve found yourself crafting an intricate to-do list? Or perhaps so angry that you joined a boxing class at the gym? Both of these activities are examples of ways in which we regulate our emotions — that is, they’re things we may do to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. We use coping strategies like these multiple times per day, often without realizing we’re doing so, in order to adapt to our environments. And while some coping strategies are healthy, harmless, and may even help to diffuse strong emotions, others (such as self-harming, abusing substances, avoiding difficult situations, and physical or verbal aggression, for example) often exacerbate negative emotions, make situations worse, and prevent us from finding solutions to our problems.
Thus, emotion dysregulation is considered the inability to regularly use healthy strategies to diffuse or moderate negative emotions. Why might someone experience emotion dysregulation? One explanation that was developed in the study of Borderline Personality Disorder (and that is undoubtedly relevant to other disorders, diagnoses, and behaviors) is called the biosocial theory. The biosocial theory posits that difficulties regulating emotions are rooted in biological predispositions which are exacerbated by specific environmental experiences. More on these concepts below:
Biological predispositions. Although research to identify the biological underpinnings of emotion dysregulation is ongoing, it’s believed that the following may contribute: genetic influences, disadvantageous intrauterine events, and early childhood environmental effects on the development of the brain and nervous system.
Environmental experiences. While traumatic events and chronically invalidating environments often contribute to emotion dysregulation, it’s possible that simply experiencing a “poorness of fit” within one’s environment may contribute as well.
While emotion dysregulation may seem quite obvious to observe, the way in which it manifests is more complicated and is made up of the following oftentimes unobservable components:
High sensitivity. People who struggle with emotion regulation often react quickly to events — it doesn’t take much to provoke an emotional response from them.
High reactivity and emotional intensity. Emotional reactions are extreme — often for both positive and negative emotions. Compared to emotionally regulated individuals, people who are emotionally dysregulated may experience joy more easily and more deeply, however they may also turn anger more quickly and easily into rage. Having difficulty regulating emotions may lead to a sense of being out of control and a certain unpredictability about the self. Emotionally dysregulated people may be so overwhelmed emotionally that they attempt to stop the intensity in maladaptive and even destructive ways (for example, through self-injury).
Slow return to emotional baseline. Reactions are long-lasting, even if the experience of the emotion takes only seconds or minutes. This is the case because emotional arousal (or mood) affects cognitive processes, which are related to the activation and reactivation of emotional states. People who are emotionally dysregulated often don’t have the skills needed to get them back to an emotional baseline, which sets them up to be more sensitive and vulnerable (see #1) to a future event.
Emotion dysregulation takes time and effort to treat, however treatment can be incredibly effective and gains are often long-lasting. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based treatment designed for emotion dysregulation that stresses
Experiencing and labeling emotions
Increasing mindfulness (and decreasing judgments) of current emotions
Identifying obstacles to changing emotions
Reducing emotional vulnerability
Increasing positive emotional events
Changing emotions by changing physiological arousal
Whether or not you’re engaging in treatment, there are many ways to improve emotion regulation, such as taking care of your physical needs; engaging in activities that build a sense of mastery and achievement; or exploring the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.