What is emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe emotions that are out of balance and fall outside of an expected range of expression. It tends to show up as emotions and moods that fluctuate strongly, which are hard to control and are stronger and persist longer than the situation seemingly demands.
Emotional dysregulation corresponds with a nervous system that is not expressing emotions in a balanced, resilient way, so that sympathetic arousal is not subsequently down-regulated effectively with parasympathetic activity. Similarly, it can also be or that a person cannot find their way out of depressive, freeze and dissociative states.
When someone experiences emotional dysregulation, they may struggle to contain angry outbursts, manage anxiety and fear states, depression, dissociation and suicidal thoughts. It may also show up as a rapidly changing emotions, so that the person is seen as highly emotional. These strong and imbalanced emotions can then lead onto destructive coping habits such as self harm, substance abuse, avoidance or excessive attempts at controlling situations to manage emotions.
Over time, this imbalance of emotions can significantly interfere with quality and enjoyment of life.
- Anxiety /Fear states
- panic and phobias
- High levels of shame
- Anger/ rage
- rapidly changing emotional states
- Substance use
- High-risk sexual behaviours
- Conflict in interpersonal relationships
- Eating disorders
- self harm and suicide attempts
- Controlling behaviours
- Dependence, co-dependence
Causes of emotional dysregulation
There can be numerous causes of dysregulated emotions both physical (eg TBI and Neurodevelopmetal) and psychological but here I will focus on the latter:
Childhood trauma and neglect: Childhood is a critical period of development in a person’s life and repeated experiences of stress, threat, abuse or neglect that overwhelm the young child’s nervous system without the support necessary to help rebalance their mind and body can lead to long term consequences in emotional dysregulation.
Complex trauma: Similar to childhood trauma, complex trauma results from longer term, repeated instances of neglect, abuse or significant danger at any stage of life that have overwhelmed the person and given rise to feelings of helplessness.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This results from traumatic episodes where the experience was linked with life threat to oneself or another. There is an intensity and shock with this kind of experience which can become difficult to encode into long term memory, so the memories and emotions continue to repeat for significant periods beyond the event. PTSD is often accompanied by strong episodes of emotional dysregulation.
Exposure to Chronically Stressful situations: Burnout within high pressure situations such as the workplace can also lead to strongly expressed and dysregulated emotions.
Approaches which help with emotional dysregulation
In my therapy practice I target this problem area with a number of approaches.
Psychotherapy can help you to understand more about the possible origins of this imbalance and to see more clearly the different ways in which dysregulated emotions might be showing up across different areas of your life. It can also help identify current day triggers and coping strategies. Building a clear picture in this way can help with self awareness and as a basis for planning for changes and implementing helpful strategies for learning to find balance. If however you have lived with fluctuating or stuck emotions for quite some time then you will likely also need an approach that helps the brain and nervous system regulate these better.
NeurOptimal Neurofeedback is also very helpful with emotional dysregulation because it directly trains the brain to harness its ability to self regulate. The brain continues to learn and change over our lifetime and it is this neuroplasticity that neurofeedback helps with. Our brain and nervous system are designed to seek homeostasis ie to return to balance so it is natural that it should be able to return to this with the right training and input.
Breathwork uses different breathing techniques to help regulate the nervous system. We know that the vagus nerve, the seat of our parasympathetic nervous system and our ability to return to calm after stress. has nerve endings throughout our respiratory system and that breathing in certain ways changes activates parasympathetic activity. Breathing is also free and accessible all the time so it is a very handy way to regulate the nervous system and emotions 24/7.
Brainspotting is a therapy technique that targets how the brain processes emotions and memories. Using eye position to find activated ‘brain spots’ for emotions, sensation or sensations in the body means that the brain can be harnessed to balance the source of emotional dysregulation in the deeper brain areas.