Are You Feeling Out of Control? Emotional Dysregulation

What is Emotional Dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is a classification used to describe when an individual has an abnormal reaction to a conversation or stimuli. To a certain degree, this is a phenomenon that many people feel at some point in their life, but it does not necessarily mean something is wrong with them. When a person becomes emotionally dysregulated, the brain notices a trigger and initiates a fight or flight response. Part of this response includes Amygdala hijacking. In short, when our brain senses a threat, it skips past the logic part of our brain and deflects directly to emotions, thus not giving us enough time to think about our response before we over-react.

Many have experienced this in our lives; it is essential to be aware of the signs to determine if more support is necessary. If a person is experiencing frequent mood swings and seems to respond to something abnormally, such as bursting into tears, hyperventilating, angry outbursts with screaming, yelling, or even physical aggression, this is a good indicator more is going on. Those suffering from abnormal emotional dysregulation are often perceived as erratic because their behavior can be risky and unpredictable. For example, a person experiencing emotional dysregulation might exhibit severe depression, self-harm, abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in high-risk behaviors including unprotected sex with strangers, exhibit eating disorders, or have suicidal thoughts. In some cases, someone might exhibit emotional dysregulation with extreme rigidity and perfectionism and may struggle with relationships in their life.


Major Causes of Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is trouble coping in those afflicted. It is the inability or hindered ability to reason logically through a stressful situation, whether that threat is perceived or actual. Typically, these responses will occur because they provide a “quick fix” method of coping with a problem. It allows for the quick release of pent-up, uncomfortable emotions or energy and provides a way for them to let it go and feel better at the moment. Unfortunately, the problem with this method, long-term, it tends to do more harm than good. Below are some significant reasons that a person might struggle to cope:

  • Frequent invalidation of feelings- This may occur throughout childhood, in an abusive relationship or other interaction over time, and the constant feeling of being discounted, put down, told we are wrong, inadequate, or ignored. In times such as these, self-esteem takes a blow, and in its wake, a person constantly feels the need to protect and defend themselves.
  • Childhood Trauma and Neglect– As much as some might hate to admit it, our upbringing and childhood are indicative sources of our evolution into adults. When particular childhood needs are not being satisfied, it will impact the development during this critical time.  When a child grows up in a neglectful or abusive household, levels of cortisol increase in the brain, and they grow up constantly on guard and in survival mode. 
  • Grief– When losing someone close, there is no right or wrong way of grieving; however, some people struggle with this loss and, as a result, can lash out, shut down or be hypersensitive.
  • Traumatic brain injury- Incidents resulting in damage to the frontal lobe can make emotional regulation and impulse control cumbersome.  The damage to the brain impacts the functioning of this area.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – When a person witnesses or experiences a life-altering or traumatic event, emotional dysregulation is not uncommon. Symptoms include flashbacks, panic attacks, hyperventilation, dissociation from reality, nightmares, crippling anxiety, or feeling numb.
  • Personality Disorders– Personality Disorders affect the way we see and perceive interactions, events, and relationships. They can cause someone to misread a situation and react very strongly. As a result, personality disorders can negatively impact social connection, keeping a job, or even everyday functioning. Many loved ones report that when personality disorders of those suffering are left untreated, it can feel like walking on eggshells when being around those afflicted.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)- This can range from repetitive thoughts, intrusive thoughts, rumination, ritualistic type patterned movements, and inability to move on from an idea. When not dealt with, these intrusive thoughts can cause crippling anxiety.  It leaves the person believing something awful will happen if they don’t fulfill the intrusive thought.

Treatment and support for Emotional Dysregulation

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is very effective in learning ways to cope with the discomfort of a perceived threat.  It teaches methods to break unhealthy cycles and unhelpful patterns and replace them with more effective coping skills in the long term. Techniques include practicing mindfulness skills, deep breathing, and learning how to bring yourself back to a calm baseline to handle a conflict more effectively. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a successful way to challenge our thoughts behind unhealthy behaviors. This modality focuses on understanding the distortions that influence our values, goals and hold us to unrealistic standards. Cognitive behavior therapy helps clients identify realistic and attainable expectations for themselves and help them be more successful. 

Medication- sometimes, when a person has experienced emotional dysregulation for an extended period, a little help is necessary from medication and psychotherapy to help regulate the emotions. Medication is not the ultimate cure-all, but it may help mediate intense symptoms as you learn the route of problems through therapy with the many options out there.

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