Feeling angry, anxious or sad about an unpleasant or difficult situation is something everyone experiences. However, if these emotions occur suddenly or frequently and are hard to manage, there may be a larger mental health issue at play. Emotional dysregulation refers to an individual experiencing difficulty regulating their emotions and calming down after feeling angry or anxious.
Emotional dysregulation is more than just feeling intensely. It can significantly impact your ability to function at work, at school or within relationships. Learn more about emotional dysregulation and what it can signify about your mental health.
What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation occurs when an individual finds it challenging to manage their emotional responses to feeling overwhelmed, angry, anxious or sad. They may experience intense emotions disproportionate to the situation that triggered them. After the event is over, it may be hard to return to their normal emotional state.
When dysregulating, a person may enter fight-or-flight mode, which is the body’s natural response to threatening situations. However, your body may enter this state even when there’s no immediate danger, resulting in anxiety, depression or trouble controlling emotional responses. This can lead to self-harming behaviors or substance use to cope with emotional distress.
Signs of Emotional Dysregulation
In general, emotional dysregulation involves experiencing overly intense emotions compared to the situation that triggered them and an inability to calm down or return to a baseline emotional state. Individuals may become hyper-focused on negative thoughts, procrastinate on tasks or behave impulsively.
Other signs of emotional dysregulation include:
- Being easily overwhelmed
- Feeling upset for no apparent reason
- Crying easily
- Finding it hard to manage stress
- Angry outbursts
- High levels of anxiety, shame or anger
- Frequent mood changes
- Disordered eating
- Relationship conflicts
- Self-harm behaviors
- High-risk sexual behaviors
- Excessive substance use
- Suicidal ideation or attempts
Emotional dysregulation can also make it difficult to recognize what emotions you’re feeling. This can lead to confusion or guilt that impedes making decisions or managing behavior.
Emotional Dysregulation and Related Mental Health Conditions
There isn’t a specific emotional regulation disorder, and emotional dysregulation isn’t a sure sign of a mental health condition. However, it’s a key symptom of several mental health disorders, including:
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
Emotional dysregulation is a core feature of BPD in particular. BPD affects approximately 1% to 3% of the general population and is sometimes referred to as the disorder of dysregulation, impacting an individual’s ability to regulate their interpersonal relationships, identity, behavior and cognition.
Emotional dysregulation can also appear as a symptom of depression or anxiety, but it may not be as prominent in these conditions.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?
Early Childhood Trauma
Trauma can alter how the brain and nervous system operate, which is why emotional dysregulation is commonly seen in people with PTSD. Research published by the National Library of Medicine suggests that childhood trauma increases a person’s risk of developing various psychosocial and developmental impairments.
Early childhood is a critical developmental period. When children are exposed to traumatic events, such as abuse or neglect, it can impact their ability to develop healthy emotional regulation skills.
A child’s emotional development is highly influenced by the care they receive from their parents or caregivers. If they’re unable to form secure attachments with others, they may develop emotional regulation difficulties, which can cause:
- Issues complying with parent or teacher requests
- Trouble making and maintaining friendships
- Inability to focus on tasks
Traumatic Brain Injuries
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a brain dysfunction caused by a violent blow or jolt to the head, usually from a car accident or severe sports injury. It can cause several physical symptoms, including headaches, nausea, dizziness or fatigue, and behavioral or mental symptoms, such as mood changes or concentration problems.
Many TBI survivors experience intense anger, ranging from irritability to violent outbursts. They may also experience sudden episodes of crying or laughing due to damage in the brain region that regulates emotion.
Neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, play a significant role in regulating emotions, which is why brain chemistry can also affect emotional dysregulation. Serotonin is a natural mood booster, sometimes called the “happy chemical.” Low serotonin levels may inhibit a person’s ability to manage their destructive or aggressive urges.
For individuals with a biological predisposition for emotional dysregulation, living in an abusive, neglectful or overall invalidating environment can worsen the effects.
Treatment and Strategies for Emotional Dysregulation
Medication and therapy are the two main treatment options for emotional dysregulation. Individuals may be prescribed medication when emotional dysregulation is associated with a mental health condition. For example, stimulants are typically prescribed to treat ADHD, while antidepressants are used for depression.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) commonly used for emotional dysregulation. Originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT is meant to help you better understand your emotions and develop self-control. It can teach you new strategies for regulating your emotions and building tolerance for unpleasant feelings.
Being able to effectively regulate your emotions can lead to healthier relationships, career improvements and an overall higher quality of life. There are several strategies that can improve emotional regulation skills:
- Learning to recognize and label specific emotions and what triggers them
- Staying conscious of thoughts, feelings and actions to regain emotional control
- Avoiding procrastination by starting a task right away and taking short, frequent breaks to prevent stress
- Exercising regularly to release extra energy caused by unpleasant emotions, such as anger or anxiety
Some strategies may work better than others, depending on the severity of your emotional dysregulation and whether you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Finding a healthy way to manage your emotions is better than leaving emotional dysregulation untreated.
Seek Mental Health Treatment
If you’re struggling with emotional regulation issues, don’t wait to seek professional help. At Restore Mental Health, we’re committed to helping you better understand and manage your emotions when they become too intense or overwhelming. Contact us today to learn how our services can help.