When we speak about emotion dysregulation, we refer to difficulties in an individual’s ability to regulate his/her emotions – to control his/her emotional and behavioral reactions to the various experiences we encounter in life. What does it mean to be unable to regulate emotions? Is this something that can be fixed or learned?
From birth, our perception of reality and resulting behavior is determined by our emotions. Over time, with brain development, experience and maturity, we learn to regulate our emotions in order to achieve more appropriate behavioral outcomes. When presented with a new bike at age 7, we might jump with joy and run around wild with excitement. When given a bonus at age 30, we might smile politely and say thank you. The intensity of the joy is the same at both ages, but our ability to regulate that emotion has increased. Likewise, when insulted on the playground at age 10, we might respond with physical or verbal aggression or internalize what was said, believing that we are in fact foolish. When cut off in traffic at age 30, we respond by honking and then continuing to drive safely. The anger might still be there, but we recognize the futility of responding. We may question our driving skills, but immediately thereafter reassure ourselves that no, this person was just being reckless.
Regulating our emotions requires our brains to do some pretty complex processing within nanoseconds. An event occurs that triggers an emotional reaction. We need to recognize that an emotion is now present, gauge its intensity, and then label the specific emotions. We then make the association between the emotion and the event, keeping in mind that we cannot always make a logical connection at the moment, and evaluate whether or not our emotion is a valid response to this particular situation – perhaps we are misinterpreting something? After that, we need to recognize the behavioral urge that the emotion is eliciting, and evaluate whether or not the urge is appropriate to act on. If it is, we allow ourselves to act. If not, we search our “database” of alternative behaviors to determine what is the most appropriate way to express our emotions – if at all – and then use techniques like relaxation and distraction to express ourselves and act in the most socially appropriate manner. Again, all of this occurs within a fraction of a second.
People who have difficulty regulating their emotions often have a core difficulty in one or more of the following areas:
Events or stimuli that would not trigger an emotional reaction in most people do trigger a reaction in them.
The intensity of the emotions they experience is much higher than for most other people.
Emotions, like chemical reactions, eventually die down. In people with emotion dysregulation, this can take much longer. Further, due to their emotional reaction being high for such a long time, they are then susceptible to reacting in a much stronger manner to further events.
The above difficulties associated with emotion dysregulation are most likely biologically-based – in other words an inborn part of their personalities that is unlikely to go away on its own or through discipline. This condition can lead to a situation where crises and stress are constant and behavior is extreme and erratic. People experiencing intense negative emotions are often suffering and looking for ways to soothe themselves. They may sometimes even turn to dangerous behaviors in order to find relief.
From the perspective of an outside observer (parents, teachers, etc) this suffering is not visible. Instead, they see people who seem to act and react in extreme and inappropriate ways. People with emotion dysregulation react to things that most people are unmoved by and their reactions are often judged as disproportionate to what has occurred. Behavioral reactions in the context of relationships may damage those relationships and create distance between them and others. Their emotionally-driven behaviors are often dismissed as “attention seeking” and girls may be labeled “drama queens”.
Sometimes their behavior is mistaken by parents and teachers for rebellion or general adolescent misbehavior and they are punished for it. These individuals are at risk for developing strong negative feelings about themselves, and they sometimes develop patterns of behavior that attempt to compensate for these feelings by pursuing relationships in unhealthy ways. Such relationships are likely to fall apart, which only reinforces their negative self-image. In this dynamic, people with emotion dysregulation learn to believe that they are bad. They never learn proper ways to label their emotional experiences or to separate emotions from reality. Not fully trusting their emotions, they sometimes cut themselves off from their emotions by taking on an appearance of calm, only to eventually erupt in an over-reaction to a minor trigger event. They often don’t learn proper ways to help themselves to feel better or relate to others in a genuine way.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy helps people who experience emotional dysregulation to reframe their responses to problematic situations. Group DBT skills training teaches participants new ways of acting in response to triggers, and new ways to regulate their emotions and think about situations. Individual DBT sessions help people better apply those skills to their unique life situations. Dialectical thinking helps people stay away from rigid black-and-white perspectives and instead see the nuances in reality and act more effectively. It also helps people BOTH accept themselves as they are AND at the same time work on changing, BOTH recognize and express their emotions AND not get lost in them. For more information about the skill modules of DBT, see “what is DBT”