Emotional Dysregulation: Definition, Examples, And Tips
What is emotional dysregulation? Learn about dysregulation in psychology, get a definition and examples of dysregulation, and get tips for healthy regulation.
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Do you have a hard time regulating (or managing) your emotions? Do you wonder what's going on when your emotions feel dysregulated (or out of control)? In this article, we'll talk about all about emotion dysregualtion—including emotional, autonomic, behavioral, and cortisol dysregulation.
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What Is Dysregulation in Psychology? (A Definition)
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dysregulation as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response” (dictionary.apa.org). In the field of psychology, a commonly discussed type of dysregulation is that of emotion dysregulation, which can negatively impact our well-being. Read on to learn more about emotion, how it can be dysregulated, and tips for healthy emotion regulation.
What is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotions are a natural part of the human experience and can be defined as “complex psychological states involving three components: a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural [sic] or expressive response” (D’Agostino et al., 2017). For example, the emotion of “fear” encompasses the subjective feeling of being afraid, physiological responses such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms, and a behavioral response such as avoiding the fearful situation.
Different emotions come and go, and can be triggered by any number of stimuli. Experiencing emotion is not a problem in and of itself—even "negative" emotions serve a useful purpose. For example, fear is aimed at helping us take care of ourselves. However, if emotions become regularly overwhelming or unbearable, they are no longer helping us and may then actively harm our well-being.
Emotional dysregulation is a complex collection of processes, but has been described as including four main aspects (Gratz & Roemer, 2004):
Examples of Emotional Dysregulation
Psychologists D’Agostino and colleagues present several examples of emotion dysregulation: “avoidance, rumination, denial, emotion suppression, aggression and venting” (2017). These are examples of behaviors and strategies that we may attempt to use to regulate emotion, but in fact, they exacerbate a negative emotion. Rumination, for example, may seem helpful at the moment but can result in prolonged negative emotion.
If you feel like you may experience emotion dysregulation, the good news is that a lot of research has gone into various successful strategies and interventions. We’ll talk more about these below.
What is Autonomic Dysregulation?
Autonomic dysregulation involves the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branch of the nervous system that controls various bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing rate. The ANS receives signals from the brain that determine certain changes in functioning. For example, in a situation with no threat, the ANS should slow heart and breathing rate and increase digestion (also known as the rest and digest response). In contrast, if the brain detects danger, the ANS should speed up heart rate and breathing (also known as the fight or flight response).
Autonomic dysregulation refers to situations where the ANS is not appropriately regulating these bodily functions. For example, people with anxiety disorders may frequently feel “revved up,” with a faster heart and breathing rate, even in the absence of immediate threat. Autonomic dysregulation is also commonly felt by people who have experienced trauma (Corrigan et al., 2010). In the context of dysregulation, an autonomic nervous response can be easily triggered when not appropriate, including in response to certain emotions.
Emotion, Mood, and Affect Dysregulation
In everyday life and even in the field of psychology, the terms emotion, mood, and affect are often used interchangeably. However, psychologists have tried to differentiate the definitions of these concepts to more effectively delineate people’s experiences and, in turn, alleviate suffering.
Of these three concepts, “affect” is generally discussed the least in the non-psychology world. Affect has been described as “core” or “basic” in that it is constantly and universally experienced: “core affect is a state of pleasure or displeasure with some degree of arousal” (Barrett & Bliss-Moreau, 2009). We have evolved to experience the world in this way, as affective responses can guide our behavior to avoid certain situations and approach others. Affect underlies not only mood and emotion, but also other psychological phenomena such as attitudes, decision-making, personality, and well-being.
Mood versus emotion
Psychologists generally differentiate mood and emotion by using emotion to refer to more transient experiences and mood to refer to longer-term trends of emotion. In addition, emotions are generally a reaction to a specific instance, whereas moods can be seen as more general with no specific or identifiable trigger (Ekkekakis, 2012). While one might feel the emotion of sadness in response to a bad grade, for example, depression is a more pervasive and longer-lasting mood that can’t necessarily be attributed to specific circumstances. A helpful analogy is comparing emotion to a city's current weather and mood to its climate.
By these definitions, emotion and mood dysregulation can be seen as subtypes of affect dysregulation. In addition, emotion dysregulation may lead to mood dysregulation. For example, while disorders like depression and bipolar disorder are characterized by dysregulated moods, these dysregulated moods can be the result of continued dysregulated emotions over time.
Emotion Dysregulation Disorders
The extent to which individuals can regulate their emotions exists on a spectrum - no one’s emotions are always regulated or dysregulated. However, various factors lead to us having certain tendencies when it comes to dealing with emotion, some that are helpful and others that are not so helpful. If frequent emotion dysregulation is causing significant distress or impairment in an individual’s daily functioning, they might be diagnosed with a psychological disorder. Below are some examples of disorders characterized by emotion dysregulation. As mentioned above, some of these are considered “mood disorders,” but are ultimately the result of continued emotion dysregulation.
What is Behavioral Dysregulation?
Behavioral dysregulation refers to engaging in maladaptive or unhelpful behaviors. Psychologists theorize that behavioral dysregulation is related to emotional dysregulation in that these unhelpful behaviors are conducted in an attempt to address difficult, dysregulated emotions (Selby et al., 2008). For example, an individual might consume an excessive amount of alcohol to numb their feelings of sadness. When this happens too regularly, this person might be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder.
Examples of behavioral dysregulation
Below are some examples of behavioral dysregulation:
What is Cortisol Dysregulation?
Cortisol is the primary hormone involved in the body’s stress response. Its release helps the body prepare for a threat, triggering various physiological changes such as increased heart and respiratory rate. This is a normal response to a threat and can be helpful, as in the case of encountering a dangerous animal. In a regulated cortisol response, the body will reduce the amount of cortisol in the body once the required amount of cortisol has been achieved. Cortisol dysregulation refers to an interruption in this process - instead of reducing cortisol when appropriate, the body retains too much cortisol in the body even when unhelpful. This cortisol dysregulation can lead both to physical health issues such as cardiovascular disease as well as psychological phenomena such as mood swings (Jones & Gwenin, 2021).
Healthy Emotion Regulation Tips
Even if you don’t have an emotion dysregulation disorder, we can all benefit from learning healthy emotion regulation strategies.
Emotional dysregulation and the mind-body connection
Some psychological research has explored how the mind-body connection is related to emotion regulation. Here are some examples of ways to tune into your body in a way that can support healthy emotion regulation:
Cognitive restructuring for emotional dysregulation
The “gold standard” for treating emotion dysregulation in the field of clinical psychology is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and similar approaches. This type of intervention rests on the theory that emotion is heavily influenced by our thoughts about our experiences. For example, imagine seeing someone you know on the street - you make eye contact with them, and you smile, but they just look away.
The way you feel about this situation depends on the way you think about it. You might think, “Wow, I guess this person didn’t smile because they don’t like me,” and feel sad or angry. Or, you might think, “Huh, maybe this person didn’t actually see me or recognize me which is why they didn’t smile at me,” and not feel particularly emotionally affected by this situation.
If you feel yourself spiraling into negative emotion, it can be helpful to pause, take a step back, and reflect on how your thoughts about your situation might be contributing to your feelings.
It can be hard to remember to do this process in your head, especially in the throes of intense emotion. One tip is to keep a thought and feeling journal, noting down events, what your thoughts were about them, and how they made you feel. Then you can question your thoughts about the event, asking yourself how helpful this way of thinking is and questioning whether there might be another way of thinking about something. See below for an example using the above scenario:
Event: A person I know didn’t acknowledge me
Automatic thought: They don’t like me
Feeling: Low self-esteem, insecurity
Questioning the thought: I am making an assumption here, it could be that this person just didn’t recognize me
New feeling: Calm, content
If you practice writing down your thoughts and feelings like this over time, the process can become second nature and you may no longer need to do this process in writing. Instead, you may find yourself able to catch unhelpful thoughts as they happen and immediately come up with a more helpful thought.
If you’re finding it hard to come up with new, helpful thoughts, it might be a good idea to consult someone else—like a trusted friend or therapist—who will have the distance required to see things in a different light.
Video: Marsha Linehan - Strategies for Emotion Regulation
In the below video, watch BPD expert Marsha Linehan discuss some strategies for emotion regulation.
Acceptance for Emotional Dysregulation
People differ in the extent to which they are able to “tolerate” different emotions. For example, one individual may experience fear before an interview, accept that this is a normal experience, and continue functioning as normal. Another person with a panic disorder might experience fear before an interview, become more fearful and upset as a result of their fear, and escalate into a panic attack.
If you find yourself in a pattern of trying to avoid your feelings or being upset about the feelings you’re having, it might be helpful to practice acceptance. If you’re feeling sad, for example, accept that this is the case. You’re feeling sad right now, and sadness is a normal emotion that everyone feels regularly for countless reasons. Changing your attitude to your emotions in this way can help prevent you from spiraling further into negative emotions.
Meditation and Emotional Dysregulation
The above strategies of cognitive restructuring and acceptance can be supported by meditation practice. While there are many different types of meditation, mindfulness meditation has been extensively studied in the emotion literature. Characterized by non-judgmental awareness of experience, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve emotion regulation (Guendelman et al., 2017).
Cultivating awareness of your inner experience can help you recognize when and why you feel certain ways, and being non-judgmental about your experience is the “acceptance” piece mentioned above. Setting aside a few minutes every day to simply notice your experience and let it happen as it is might make it easier to manage your emotions in the rest of your everyday life.
More Articles Related To Emotional Dysregulation
Here are a few additional articles that can help you keep learning about emotion and how to manage your emotions more effectively.
It’s normal for our emotions to fluctuate—that’s part of being human. But if you find yourself struggling with frequent strong emotions that you can’t seem to manage, you might be experiencing emotional dysregulation. The good news is that there are effective ways to help regulate your emotions, including the tips we saw above.