We all have days when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions. We might feel giddy, laugh easily, or be quick to get offended, irritated, or cry more easily than usual. Having this kind of day from time to time is normal. However, a consistent lack of control of your emotional responses could point to emotional dysregulation.
Of course, not everyone with strong emotional reactions necessarily suffers from this condition. This article will explain the symptoms that define emotional dysregulation and point to possible ways of coping with it.
Emotional dysregulation is exactly what it sounds like: having a hard time regulating your emotions. What sets emotional dysregulation apart from just being an emotional person? The difference lies in how well you identify and manage your feelings. For example, when a person with emotional dysregulation feels anxious, they might spiral into uncontrollable fearful thoughts. When they get sad, it takes over every aspect of their life for a long time.
In other words, emotional dysregulation is an inability to cope with emotions and make yourself feel better. Moreover, it can lead to harmful or destructive choices and actions. For instance, if someone cuts you off on the highway, you could be taken over by road rage and risk an accident as you speed up to confront the driver.
“It is totally possible to have intense emotions, to react strongly, and be completely regulated,” says Dr. Kim L. Gratz, a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Emotions are a healthy and natural part of life. The question is how we react to those emotions and whether we can manage them in acceptable ways.
Therapists look for certain characteristics to determine whether a patient is suffering from emotional dysregulation. The following signs point to emotional dysregulation:
When individuals with emotional dysregulation feel overwhelming painful emotions, like intense anger or sadness, they might prefer to disconnect from them. This prevents you from figuring out where those emotions come from and act effectively to resolve them.
The same is true if you see your emotions as ‘unacceptable.’ For instance, you could feel ashamed when experiencing anger or sadness. To learn more about avoidance behavior, check out our previous article - How to Recognize and Overcome Avoidance Behavior.
According to the clinical psychologist, Dr. Jill P. Weber, people who struggle with emotional dysregulation usually engage in self-destructive ways to manage their emotions and make themselves feel better. That is especially apparent in their relationships.
A good example of this is overreacting when you’re upset. “If you’re upset with your romantic partner, you may go to drastic lengths to make sure the partner gets just how upset you are,” explains Weber. So instead of having a conversation with your partner, you might break off the relationship, burst into anger, or verbally belittle them.
Self-sabotaging behavior can manifest itself in many different ways. In order to cope with their intense feelings, emotionally dysregulated people may engage in destructive and risky behaviors, such as drinking, taking drugs, or gambling. Other kinds of self-harm include eating disorders and extreme perfectionism.
Resolving arguments healthily, whether they happen with coworkers, family members, or anyone else, doesn’t come easy to many people. It is an acquired skill, but emotionally dysregulated people have an especially tough time resolving conflicts in productive ways.
Disagreements over small daily matters like which color to paint the bedroom might become blown out of proportion and escalate into a fight. That is because the person with emotional dysregulation experiences significant anxiety, fear of being abandoned, inadequacy, or shame as a result of the argument. These overwhelming emotions make it significantly more difficult to address the problem at hand and find a solution.
There are various mental health disorders with emotional dysregulation as the central or prominent feature. These include depression, borderline disability disorder, ADHD, and eating disorders. All of these conditions require professional medical help.
The primary causes of emotional dysregulation are early childhood trauma, neglect, or traumatic brain injury. There may be a genetic component to it too, according to some experts. “Some people have more strong emotions, some people have less strong emotions. It’s just the way they’re born,” says Dr. Gratz. Being sensitive and having stronger emotions may be harder to regulate, but biology isn't necessarily a sentence. Managing your emotions takes skills, and they can be learned and practiced at any stage of one's life.
Expert stress that, in most cases, emotional dysregulation isn’t a standalone disorder. Usually, it's part of a larger diagnosis - like anxiety or PTSD. The best way to address emotional dysregulation, if you suspect it, is by seeking the help of a mental health professional. Depending on your diagnosis and specific situation, a therapist will suggest a therapeutic approach that will suit you best. A skilled counselor can give you the tools that will help you cope with the feelings you’re experiencing.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone, whether you are overwhelmed by emotions nearly every day or just occasionally.
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