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Introduction to Emotional Dysregulation

You have a variety of feelings.  Some are pleasant, some are unpleasant.  They all serve a purpose.  For a variety of reasons, called vulnerabilities, some people are more sensitive or react more strongly to distress, take longer to calm down and may have an inability to effectively calm down.  This is called emotional dysregulation.  For some, it only happens every once in a blue moon when they are under extreme stress.  For others, this dysregulation may be a daily occurrence. Let’s take a look at each of those things more closely to understand why it impacts some people sometimes, and others, seemingly constantly. Then you will learn some techniques to prevent vulnerabilities, and tools to tolerate distress when it inevitably happens.

Emotional Vulnerability

The first element is emotional vulnerability.  This refers to situations in which you are more emotionally sensitive or reactive than other people, or than you would be at other times.  Think of a time when you reacted more strongly to something that you normally would.  What was going on prior to that?  Did you have a lot of other stressors, and this was the event that “broke the camel’s back?”  Were you feeling ill?  Had you not slept well?  Vulnerabilities are any physical, environmental, emotional or situational condition which exists and is already causing you stress in some way and makes you more likely to respond to any additional stressors with extreme negative emotions.

Each of these issues can make you more vulnerable to responding with extreme emotions, because each of them triggers a stress reaction.  When you have three or four stressors going on before even encountering the last one, you are already on the proverbial brink.  Part of emotion regulation involves becoming aware of the stressors that make you vulnerable and preventing those stressors when possible.  If you cannot prevent the vulnerabilities, then you remain aware that you are vulnerable and take precautions.  For example, when I was at my last job I normally had my door open.  I really did enjoy talking to clients and staff.  However, if I was having a day in which I was particularly tired or feeling overwhelmed, I knew I would be irritable if I was getting interrupted frequently, so I would close my door. If someone really needed something they would knock or have the front desk call me.  In this way I accommodated the fact that I was already vulnerable.

For another example, think about cancer.  Most of us have had, or have known someone who has had, cancer.  It is certainly not something you want, so you probably do a lot to prevent getting cancer in the first place.  You may eat plenty of fresh vegetables, limit sun exposure, and stop smoking.  All of these help you reduce your vulnerability to cancer, so when a cell mutates, your body has the resources to destroy it.  If, however, you did get cancer and started chemotherapy it would make your much more vulnerable to getting sick from other illnesses because your immune system would be compromised.  You would want to preserve your energy to help your body deal with the cancer, so you would avoid situations that would expose you to germs and potentially make you sicker.  That is, you recognize you are already under stress and vulnerable, so you take steps to prevent becoming deathly ill.

The same is true for your emotions.  (And no, I am not saying your emotions are like a cancer.  Emotions are healthy.) If you feel like you are more reactive or sensitive, or if you know you become more sensitive when you are vulnerable, try to preserve your energy to help your body deal with emotional upset.  One of the easiest things to do is to identify all of the things that make you vulnerable to stress/anger/anxiety/depression and start addressing those.

Why Do Some People Experience High Emotionality Constantly?

What if this happens more than once in a while?  What if it feels like you are afloat a mile off shore with only pool floaties?  If you have been stressed for a very long time, if you constantly fear abandonment or rejection, if you regularly feel like you have no control over what happens to you, then you may be on high alert more often (or always).  If you have hit an especially rough patch where there is a lot of unpleasantness, that is going to be more present in your mind than the cute bluebird that sat on the windowsill this morning.

What happens to the brain when there is chronic anxiety?  As you learn, your brain connects experiences to memories, kind of like a highway, and it prunes away connections that are not used.   Think of it like paving a road.  Each time there is a connection between a current event and a memory, a layer of concrete goes down.  Your brain is like the city planner identifying where resources need to go.  More traffic = more attention, funding and concrete.  If you are experiencing a lot more anxiety/stress, those events are being associated with unpleasant memories and reactions.  That highway is going to be much stronger.  What happens to the road going to the happy memories?  Just like a road that goes a long time without being paved, it starts to crumble. People stop using it.

When bad things happen, emotional upset prevents learning or observing new, positive things to counterbalance.  Your highway to happiness starts to crumble.  Instead of being able to remember the good with the bad, you start to only see and remember the bad…the things the signs along the distress highway are warning you about.

Regardless of whether you have experienced this out of control feeling for a short time, or it has been going on most of your life, there are things you can do.  One group of tools designed to help people address emotional dysregulation is called Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT.  CBT provides many tools that the average person can use when they are facing overwhelming emotions.  (Note: If you are suicidal, or you self-harm, it is important to do these techniques with a therapist, and if you are feeling like hurting yourself now, stop reading, call 911

Emotion Regulation

What is Emotion Regulation? Emotion regulation is the ability to influence the intensity of your reactions.  Your emotions are natural reactions to help you survive.  They fall into four broad categories: Happy, Angry, Anxious, Depressed.  You cannot avoid having any of these emotions, but you can impact the intensity and duration of them.

Emotion regulation can help you control the intensity of your emotions by reducing vulnerabilities. By ensuring you are rested, healthy, (relatively) pain free, effectively managing your time, and developing healthy relationships you can feel less vulnerable to stressors that come your way.

Emotion regulation can also help you change painful emotions once they start by teaching that emotions in and of themselves are not good or bad.  Suppression of unpleasant emotions however makes things worse.  Think of unpleasant emotions like a lit match, and suppressing them like trying to hide the match.  You don’t think other people would approve of you having the matches, so when someone walks in while you have a lit match, you quickly hide it behind your back.  You don’t put it out.  It continues to burn.  The pain is intense.  Your emotions can be similar.  The more you try to tell yourself not to feel a certain way, the more your brain screams louder…”I am trying to tell you something!”

The goals of emotion regulation are to…

  • Increase present focused emotion awareness which means to become more aware of how you are feeling in the moment, and identify your physical sensations, thoughts and urges associated with the emotions.
  • Increasing cognitive flexibility means being able to step back from your feelings and thoughts and evaluate all of the options for responding.
  • Identifying and preventing patterns of emotion avoidance and emotion-driven behaviors means being able to identify things you do to try to avoid feeling (and dealing with) unpleasant feelings and things you do in response to unpleasant feelings such as self-harm, drinking, withdrawing, etc.

Increasing awareness and tolerance of emotion-related physical sensations means not only becoming aware of emotions, but developing the confidence that you can handle them

Summary

Emotional dysregulation is common in many disorders.  People with dysregulated emotions have a stronger and longer lasting response to stimuli.  Because many people assume you have the same stress and resources they do, they do not understand why you may react more strongly to certain things.  In this way, emotional dysregulation is often punished or invalidated, increasing hopelessness and isolation.

Emotional regulation means using mindfulness to be aware of and reduce vulnerabilities, identify the function and reinforcers for current emotions, checking the facts you are using to draw your current conclusions, and then problem solving to try and change the situation.

Click HERE for more resources, videos and worksheets that will help you apply this information.