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What Is Emotional Dysregulation? A Comprehensive Guide
Worried mature man standing at home, close to a window, with hand in the head
Emotional Health

What Is Emotional Dysregulation? A Comprehensive Guide

You may need more support than you're getting.

Everyone has overreacted at some point in their lives. It’s part of being human. However, if extreme negative reactions become your norm, there may be something deeper going on, namely emotional dysregulation. Whether brought on by extreme stress or as the result of childhood trauma, emotional dysregulation can affect your quality of life and your relationships.

Here’s what you need to know about emotional dysregulation, including the key warning signs and when to get help. 

What Exactly Is Emotional Dysregulation?

According to the American Psychological Association, dysregulation is defined as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response.” When it comes to emotional dysregulation specifically, this might look like not being able to calm down, acting with aggression, being passive-aggressive, creating conflict, avoiding tough emotions (i.e. shutting down), behaving impulsively when emotions get out of control or ruminating on negative thoughts.

Essentially, when you’re emotionally dysregulated you lack the coping skills to react rationally. You might feel confused or overwhelmed by your feelings to the point that you can’t manage your behavior, take care of yourself or make decisions. 

mother and baby in distress

Emotional dysregulation is a spectrum: Some people may become dysregulated after experiencing a prolonged period of stress when they’re feeling like they’re at the end of their rope. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” metaphor may come to mind here: When emotionally dysregulated, adults may act like toddlers, having a tantrum over something seemingly trivial. Others may have cultivated extreme emotional dysregulation as a result of childhood trauma and their outbursts are more habitual, or even their norm. In these cases, these people may become diagnosed with a mental health disorder. 

Where does emotional dysregulation come from?

Psychologists often point to reactive attachment disorder as a root cause of emotional dysregulation. When children suffer from abuse or neglect in childhood, they don’t form healthy attachments nor do they learn now to properly regulate their emotions. Typically, parents who struggle with emotional dysregulation won’t be able to teach their own children healthy coping skills, causing the next generation of emotionally dysregulated adults. 

What Are the Signs of Emotional Dysregulation?

The following outlines three of the most common signs of emotional dysregulation: 

High levels of anxiety or depression

People who are emotionally dysregulated may also deal with anxiety or depression, with one issue influencing (and exacerbating) the other. They may feel strong levels of shame or anger (toward themselves or others) as well. Finally, even they may have difficulty sleeping or always feel exhausted. 

Self-harm or self-sabotaging behaviors

Another sign of emotional dysregulation is relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms. When someone is not able to properly cope with their emotions and regulate themselves, they might turn to substances like drugs or alcohol as a means of escape. They might also binge eat or control their eating as a way to feel less out of control emotionally. In extreme cases, they may also have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. 

Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships

co-workers arguing

It’s challenging to be in a relationship with someone who is emotionally dysregulated. They may be prone to outbursts or even become verbally abusive. An emotionally dysregulated person may hide their emotions or have a hard time having a vulnerable or revealing conversation. They may also hold grudges or blow minor conflicts up into huge blowouts, which can ruin their relationships. 

What Should You Do if You’re Feeling Emotionally Dysregulated?

If you feel like you’re not dealing with your emotions in a healthy way, there are many avenues for getting help and learning how to regulate your emotions. 

Here are some options you can try:

Find a therapist who’s trained in cognitive behavioral therapy 

Even if you think you’re not the therapy type, nearly everyone can benefit from talking to a mental health professional. This is especially so if you think you’re emotionally dysregulated. Typically, those who suffer from emotional dysregulation benefit from working with someone trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that combines talk therapy with changing habits and learning strategies like mindfulness and acceptance. A therapist can work with you to modify your behavior and build new practices to help you regulate your emotions. 

Practice skills that lead to emotional regulation

With or without the help of a therapist, you can start practicing emotional regulation, building new neural pathways in your brain so you can change the way you currently react. First, you can try noticing your feelings and trying to name them as they come up, which can increase the time between a stressful or challenging situation and your response. You can also work on mindfulness, either controlling your breathing or becoming aware of your body in other ways to help you stay rooted in the moment without getting lost in the storm of your feelings. Finally, you might try affirmations and gratitude journaling to build your relationship with yourself and help you to focus on the positive. 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle 

Implementing a strong self care routine can help improve emotional regulation. Eating healthy food, making time for exercise and getting enough sleep can support both your physical and mental health. When you feel good physically, you often feel good mentally as well.  

woman eating an apple

Consider antidepressants 

Work with a therapist and a psychiatrist if you are worried about your emotional dysregulation and feel like the aforementioned coping strategies aren’t enough for you. Sometimes, a chemical imbalance is the root cause of emotional dysregulation and the right medication can help ease the symptoms. 

Rule out underlying conditions

Consider talking to your doctor if you’re concerned that you might have a physical illness that could be affecting your mood. Getting the necessary blood tests and check-ups that your doctor recommends is a good way to rule out any underlying conditions that could be causing issues mentally.  

When Should You Get Support? 

If your reactions to everyday stressful situations are causing issues in your life, it may be time to seek additional support. Talk to someone you trust—a partner, friend or family member—about your feelings and to get some validation. This person may be able to help you realize that you need more support in regulating your emotions. Then, find a local therapist (or one online) who you can speak with to help you develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Emotional dysregulation can get worse over time if left untreated, as your neural pathways become more familiar with outsized or extreme reactions to challenging situations. Working on regulation skills ASAP can help you change these ingrained patterns and help you develop healthier ways of expressing—and accepting—your emotions.

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