Emotional dysregulation is a term that seems to be used quite a lot these days meaning an inability to manage our emotional states. We may struggle to return to “baseline”, to soothe ourselves, after getting really angry or anxious or sad. Intense feelings seem to come too often, too quickly, and are just too difficult to manage. If this sounds familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. At times, we all have strong emotional reactions that we struggle with – that’s just part of being human. (We can sometimes use the term”emotional dysregulation” in a quite judgemental way, to describe another person’s behaviour. It is important to repeat that all of us, at times, can become dysregulated.)
When we are emotionally dysregulated our nervous system may have entered a fight, flight or freeze state, which is how our body responds to threats. Sometimes, our body can enter these states even when there is no real or immediate danger.
What does emotional dysregulation look like?
People may become extremely angry, lash out, or become verbally abusive. Or they may shut down, “freeze,” and go silent. They may cry for hours and not be able to stop. They may have sudden mood swings from happy and smiling, to hopeless and sad. Others may engage in impulsive or compulsive behaviours such as binge eating or compulsive exercise routines to numb themselves emotionally and as a way of momentarily escaping vulnerable feelings.
It’s really important to understand that when a person experiences emotional dysregulation, they often struggle in labeling and identifying their emotions and may feel confused or feel guilt and shame. Some people describe it as walking around in an “emotional fog”.
How does emotional dysregulation affect our lives?
One of the biggest ways emotional dysregulation can hurt a person is the impact it can have on their intimate relationships. If a person cannot control their anger, or is out of touch with their own feelings (by using avoidance, escapism, or “numbing” behaviours), they can say or do things that push others away, which can affect the stability of their relationships. Dysregulation also contributes to suicidality and self-harming, and leads to self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse, disordered eating, or other means of avoiding the painful emotions and thoughts,
What causes emotional dysfunction?
The environment in which a child is raised is significant: If caregivers are emotionally dysregulated themselves, they may not be able to teach their children how to manage and regulate emotions because they struggle in regulating their own. Specifically, some children grow up in an environment in which they experience pervasive invalidation. They regularly receive the message that there’s something wrong with them, and are punished for the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations they experience – or have these experiences ignored.
How to overcome emotional dysfunction – in the moment
Taking a few minutes to simply PAUSE and process what is going on can be hugely helpful:
- What just happened there? What was the trigger for the feeling? What were you reacting to? (Don’t judge whether your response was right or wrong, just be descriptive.)
- What were your thoughts about the situation? How did you interpret what was happening? (For example did you notice yourself judging, jumping to conclusions, or making assumptions?)
- What did you notice in your body? For example, tension or tightness in certain areas? Changes in your breathing, your heart rate, your temperature? Describe your body language, posture and facial expression.
- What urges were you noticing in yourself? Did you want to yell or throw things? Was the urge to not make eye contact, to avoid or escape a situation you were in?
- What were your actions? Did you act on any of the urges you noted above? Did you do something else instead?
Going through this exercise will help you increase your ability to name your emotions accurately. Once you’ve asked yourself the above questions, you could try asking yourself if your emotion fits into one of these four (almost rhyming) categories: mad (angry), sad, glad, and afraid. These are terms that can be a helpful starting point for distinguishing basic emotions, but gradually you can work on getting more specific. (See my blog post about the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett).
The American psychiatrist Dan Siegel says in this excellent 4 minute video, if you can’t name it, you can’t tame it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcDLzppD4Jc). Once you can identify your emotion, you’ll be more able to choose what to do about it, starting with validating the feeling you’re experiencing, which is the skill my next blog will look at.
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Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.