Emotional Dysregulation

Do you sometimes feel that you're not in control of your emotions? Do you end up regretting many of the things you say and do? This suggests a lack of emotional regulation. It can often lead to situations of great suffering.
Emotional Dysregulation

Last update: 13 April, 2022

Emotional dysregulation is defined as those extreme, poorly modulated responses that hinder your ability to function effectively. One example is being unable to stay calm and ending up speaking badly to someone you love. Also, binge eating after having a bad day at work, or arguing with your partner.

It’s often said that every emotion is valid and fulfills a certain function. However, it’s one thing to experience any emotion with an intense negative valence (such as anger) and another to let ourselves be carried away by them. For example, people who insult and treat others badly due to their poor management of their frustration.

When this characteristic is particularly extreme, it tends to be related to multiple psychological disorders. One example is bipolar disorder. On the other hand, we all suffer episodes when we manifest emotional outbursts that arent well adjusted, with their obvious consequences.

Man suffering emotional dysregulation
Factors such as avoidance, rumination, and denial intensify emotional dysregulation.

Characteristics of emotional dysregulation

You’ve probably felt, on more than one occasion, overwhelmed by your emotions. Indeed, there are plenty of situations that trigger these intense responses, and reacting vehemently to an adverse context is completely normal. What’s abnormal and even pathological is reacting in a maladjusted way in an apparently everyday situation.

This might happen when a person returns from work stressed and burdens the family with their anxiety in a violent way. It could also occur when a teenager resorts to self-harm because of dissatisfaction with their body or because of problems at school.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dysregulation as any excessive and overwhelming response that threatens our well-being.

Components of emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is a phenomenon of great intensity that’s accompanied by multiple processes. In research conducted by Gratz & Roemer, they detailed the factors that orchestrate this psychological state. Let’s take a look at them.

  • There’s a distinct lack of awareness, acceptance, and understanding about the emotions being experienced at a given moment.
  • Denial of feelings. Non-acceptance and projection of the emotion in other ways. For instance, yelling, crying, self-harming, etc.
  • No strategy for handling the situation. Moreover, people with emotional dysregulation generally tend to intensify the state through rumination, irrational worry, and denial.

How does it manifest?

The inability to regulate emotions derives from deficient psychological regulation strategies of what we feel and what happens to us.

In many cases, emotional dysregulation derives from mental disorders. This is usual in people who’ve been repeating the same behavioral, cognitive, and emotional pattern for months or years.

On average, the following associated manifestations occur in a person suffering from emotional dysregulation:

  • They view their reality and every experience through a filter of negativity.
  • They suffer from sleep disturbances.
  • There are psychosomatic alterations.
  • They often experience attention problems.
  • They have problems maintaining relationships, friendships, etc.
  • There’s a tendency for them to argue. These can sometimes be violent or risqué.
  • They experience problems at work. For example, difficulties in being productive or in agreeing with colleagues, etc.
  • They experience outbursts of anger, tears, etc.
  • There’s a tendency to self-harm
  • Their feeding patterns change.
  • There’s a possible risk of consumption of addictive substances, such as alcohol or drugs.

The origin of emotional dysregulation

Research conducted by Dr. Russell A. Barkley claims that there are often signs of emotional dysregulation in two-year-olds who later suffer from attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

These are boys and girls with greater problems in regulating their feelings of anger and anguish. Although the mechanisms of why this occurs are still unclear, it’s a frequent occurrence.

This difficulty in controlling emotions is usually associated with more than one mental problem. Here are some examples:

  • People who’ve suffered some childhood trauma usually show signs of emotional dysregulation.
  • Sufferers of bipolar disorder also demonstrate this feature.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is another example.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) is a condition in which difficulty managing and controlling emotions appears. It affects children and adolescents who show intense outbursts of irritability and misbehavior.
Screaming child with conduct disorder
Emotion dysregulation is often associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Treatment for emotion dysregulation

An effective and valid strategy for treating emotional dysregulation is dialectical behavior therapy. This approach effectively helps people control their emotions. This therapeutic methodology aims to:

  • Change and work on unhealthy behaviors that increase suffering.
  • Understand, become aware of, and regulate emotions.
  • Improve interpersonal relationships.
  • Improve attention and relaxation skills.
  • Learn to tolerate anguish and resistance to frustration.

As we mentioned earlier, we all experience occasional problems in the control and regulation of our emotions from time to time. However, a problem occurs when this reality becomes a constant. That’s when expert help should be sought.

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  • Barkley, R. A. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: Constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 65–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.121.1.65
  • D’Agostino, A., Covanti, S., Monti, M. R., & Starcevic, V. (2017). Reconsidering emotion dysregulation. Psychiatric Quarterly, 88(4), 807-825.
  • Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the difficulties in emotion regulation scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 41-54.
  • Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(2), 107-115.