Some People May Find It Harder Than Others to Manage Their Emotions
Updated on May 03, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
What Is Dysregulation?
Dysregulation, or emotional dysregulation, is an inability to control or regulate one’s emotional responses, which can lead to significant mood swings, significant changes in mood, or emotional lability. It can involve many emotions, including sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration.
While dysregulation is typically thought of as a childhood problem that usually resolves itself as a child learns proper emotional regulation skills and strategies, dysregulation may continue into adulthood.
For these individuals, emotional dysregulation can lead to a lifetime of struggles, including problems with interpersonal relationships, school performance, and the inability to function effectively in a job or at work.
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What Triggers Dysregulation?
Why is it that some people have no trouble remaining calm, cool, and collected while others fall apart at the first instance of something going wrong in their life?
The answer is that there are likely multiple causes; however, there is one that has been consistently shown in the research literature. That cause is early psychological trauma resulting from abuse or neglect on the part of the caregiver.1 This results in something known as a reactive attachment disorder.
In addition, a parent who has emotional dysregulation will also struggle to teach their child how to regulate emotions. Since children are not naturally born with emotional regulation coping skills, having a parent who cannot model effective coping puts a child at risk for emotional dysregulation themselves.
Is Dysregulation a Mental Disorder?
While dysregulation isn’t necessarily a mental disorder (or a sign of one), we know that emotional dysregulation in childhood can be a risk factor for later mental disorders. Some disorders are also more likely to involve emotional dysregulation.
Below is a list of the disorders most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation:2
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD)
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
When emotional dysregulation appears as part of a diagnosed mental disorder, it typically involves a heightened sensitivity to emotional stimuli and a lessened ability to return to a normal emotional state within a reasonable amount of time.
What Are Signs of Dysregulation?
In general, emotional dysregulation involves having emotions that are overly intense in comparison to the situation that triggered them. This can mean not being able to calm down, avoiding difficult emotions, or focusing your attention on the negative. Most people with emotional dysregulation also behave in an impulsive manner when their emotions (fear, sadness, or anger) are out of control.
Below are some examples of what it looks like when someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation.
- Your romantic partner cancels plans and you decide they must not love you and you end up crying all night and binging on junk food.
- The bank teller says they can’t help you with a particular transaction and you’ll need to come back the next day. You have an angry outburst, yell at the teller, and throw a pen across the counter at them.
- You attend a company dinner and everyone seems to be talking and having fun while you feel like an outsider. After the event, you go home and overeat to numb your emotional pain. This is also an example of poor coping mechanisms and emotional eating.
Emotional dysregulation can also mean that you have trouble recognizing the emotions that you are experiencing when you become upset. It might mean that you feel confused by your emotions, guilty about your emotions, or are overwhelmed by your emotions to the point that you can’t make decisions or manage your behavior.
Note that the behaviors of emotional dysregulation may show up differently in children, involving temper tantrums, outbursts, crying, refusing to make eye contact or speak, etc.
Impact of Emotional Dysregulation
Being unable to manage your emotions and their effects on your behavior can have a range of negative effects on your adult life. For instance:
- You might have trouble sleeping.
- You might struggle to let experiences go or hold grudges longer than you should.
- You might get into minor arguments that you blow out of proportion to the point that you end up ruining relationships.
- You might experience negative effects on your social, work, or school functioning.
- You might develop a mental disorder later in life because of a poor ability to regulate your emotions (e.g., depression)
- You might develop a substance abuse problem or addiction such as smoking, drinking, or drugs.
- You might engage in self-harm or other disordered behavior such as restrictive eating habits or binge eating.
- You might have trouble resolving conflict.
A child with emotional dysregulation may experience the following outcomes:
- A tendency to be defiant
- Problems complying with requests from teachers or parents
- Problems making and keeping friends
- Reduced ability to focus on tasks
How Do You Fix Dysregulation?
The two main options for treating emotion dysregulation are medication and therapy, depending on the individual situation. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Medication may be used to treat emotion dysregulation when it is part of a larger mental disorder. For example, ADHD will be treated with stimulants, depression will be treated with antidepressants, and other issues might be treated with antipsychotics.
In terms of therapy for emotional dysregulation, the main treatment method has been what is known as dialectical behavior therapy(DBT).3 This form of therapy was originally developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals experiencing BPD.4
In general, this type of therapy involves improving mindfulness, validating your emotions, and engaging in healthy habits. It also teaches the skills needed to regulate your emotions. Through DBT, you learn to focus on the present moment, how to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how to deal with stressful situations.
DBT argues that there are three “states of mind:”4
- Reasonable mind refers to being logical and rational.
- Emotional mind refers to your moods and sensations.
- Wise mind refers to the combination of your reasonable mind and your emotional mind.
DBT is about showing you that you can see situations as shades of grey rather than all black and white (in other words, combining your emotional mind and logic mind).
If you’ve just experienced a stressful situation or crisis and want to try a little DBT at home, pull out a journal and answer these questions.
- What was the event that caused you distress?
- What did you think about in the situation? (Write down three main thoughts.)
- How did these thoughts make you feel? (Write down any physical symptoms, things you did like crying, or feelings like being upset.)
- What was the consequence of the thoughts you had?
The goal of DBT is to balance your emotions with logic to obtain more positive outcomes from the situations that you find stressful. The goal is also to teach you to become more aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. In this way, it’s expected that you will be able to better manage your emotions in your daily life.
Parenting a Child with Emotion Dysregulation
If you are a parent of a child who struggles with emotion dysregulation, you might be wondering what you can do to support your child. It is true that children learn emotion regulation skills from their parents. You have the ability to teach your child how to manage emotions rather than become overwhelmed by them. Here are some ways you can support them:
Your child also needs to know that they can reach out to you for help and comfort when needed. Having a supportive and reliable parent figure in their life will help to protect them against problems with emotional dysregulation.
- Recognize your own limitations. Do you have a mental disorder or have you struggled with your own emotion regulation skills? If so, you and your child might benefit from you receiving treatment or therapy to build up your own resilience. When you are better able to manage your own distress, then you will be able to offer the most support to your child.
- Lead by example. In addition, the best way to teach your child how to manage their emotions is not to demand that they behave in a certain way or punish them for acting out. Rather, the best option is to model the desired behavior yourself that you want them to adopt.
- Adjust accordingly. It can be helpful to start to recognize triggers for your child’s behavior and have a back-up plan of effective ways to deal with acting out. For example, if your child always has a tantrum when you take them to buy shoes, try picking out a pair in their size and bringing them home for them to try on.
- Maintain consistent routines. Children who struggle with emotion dysregulation benefit from predictability and consistency.5 Your child needs to know that you will be there for them when they need you and that they can rely on you to be the calming presence. When your own emotions are out of control, then it is much more likely that your child will be unable to manage their own emotions.
- Seek accommodations or additional support. If your child is in school, it is also important that you talk to their teacher about their problems with emotion regulation. Talk about the strategies that you use at home and how your child might need extra help in the classroom or reminders on how to calm down. If your child has a diagnosed disorder, they may be on a special education plan that allows accommodations or gives them extra help. Be sure to take advantage of that.
- Reward positive behavior. If you see your child acting in ways that are positive for emotion management, comment on those positive behaviors. Find ways to reward emotion management successes so that they will become more frequent.
Whether it’s you, your child, or someone you know who struggles with emotion dysregulation, it is important to know that this is something that can improve over time. In fact, 88% of those diagnosed with BPD are not predicted to meet criteria 10 years down the road.6 This goes to show that emotion regulation strategies can be learned and are very helpful for improving your situation and living the best life possible.
Regardless of your current circumstances, you can make changes that will result in improved social, school, and work functioning. You can learn to manage the stressful situations that cause you pain and work through past hurts or mistreatment that led you to where you are today.
By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of “Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder” and “7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety.” She has a Master’s degree in psychology.