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What Is Emotional Dysregulation?


Emotional dysregulation is an inability to manage your emotional states. This means you’re unable to control feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger.


Intense and unpleasant emotions are a natural part of life. Whether it’s anger, anxiety, or sadness, these emotions are a universal part of the human experience.


But what happens when these feelings come too often, too quickly, and are just too difficult to manage?

If you have significant trouble regulating your emotions and returning to “baseline” after getting really angry or anxious, you may have emotional dysregulation.


Defining emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation — also called affect dysregulation or simply dysregulation — is when you’re unable to manage your emotional responses. This means it’s difficult to soothe yourself when you feel overwhelmed, sad, or angry, and you find it hard to return to “normal” after these feelings come up.


When you’re emotionally dysregulated your nervous system might have entered a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, which is how your body responds to threats. Sometimes, your body enters these states even when there is no danger, leading to unexpected anxiety, depression, or trouble controlling your emotional responses.


Dysregulation places you outside your window of tolerance — the state where you can manage your emotions and not get overwhelmed by stress.


People with emotional dysregulation often try to decrease their emotional distress with harmful behaviors, including:

  • substance misuse

  • self-harm

  • suicidal ideation or actions

  • impulsivity

Signs of emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation involves an extreme sensitivity to emotional triggers and a reduced ability to return to a baseline emotional state within a reasonable period.


Depending on the person, emotional dysregulation can result in various reactions from procrastination to crying spells to mood swings.


Signs and symptoms of emotional dysregulation may include the following:

  • being easily overwhelmed

  • feeling overly emotional

  • crying easily or feeling upset for “no reason”

  • frequent mood shifts

  • impulsivity

  • finding it hard to deal with stress

  • perfectionism

  • angry outbursts

  • high levels of anxiety

  • depression

  • high levels of shame

  • disordered eating

  • self-harm behaviors

  • suicidal thoughts or actions

  • substance misuse

  • relationship conflict

Research from 2022 shows that emotional dysregulation — along with experiences of trauma — is a core factor in whether a person develops or maintains nonsuicidal self-injury in adolescents.


Mental health conditions that involve emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation isn’t always a sign of a mental health condition, but it is a key feature of many, including:

  • borderline personality disorder (BPD)

  • bipolar disorder

  • disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • complex PTSD (CPTSD)

  • fetal alcohol syndrome

Emotional dysregulation is seen in many psychiatric disorders but is a core feature in DMDD (diagnosed in childhood), bipolar disorder, and BPD.


While not as prominent, emotional regulation difficulties also play a role in other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and major depression.


What causes emotional dysregulation?

Childhood trauma

Emotional dysregulation is common in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of how trauma changes the brain and nervous system.


Research from 2014 suggests that healthy emotional regulation is an important developmental step during childhood. A child’s emotional development is highly influenced by whether they can develop secure attachments, particularly with a responsive caregiver, but also with their peers.


In contrast, emotional dysregulation is associated with interpersonal trauma and post-traumatic stress.

In particular, 2013 research shows a distinct link between childhood trauma from a primary caregiver and emotional dysregulation in BPD.


Brain chemistry

Brain chemistry may also be involved in emotional dysregulation.

We know that neurotransmitters play a significant role in regulating our emotions, impulses, and aggression. In fact, research has shown a direct link between low serotonin activity, aggression, and an inability to manage destructive urges.


People with emotional dysregulation may have a biological predisposition for emotional reactivity that’s been triggered or worsened by living in an invalidating environment, such as childhood abuse or neglect.


Brain injuries

Emotional dysregulation is also linked to traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Up to one-third of TBI survivors experience new or worse symptoms of anger, ranging from irritability to aggressive outbursts.


People with TBI may also experience sudden episodes of crying or laughing. These symptoms are often due to damage in the part of the brain that regulates emotions.


How to treat emotional dysregulation

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) — a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — is one of the most effective methods for treating emotional dysregulation.


Originally developed for treating BPD, this therapy can help you learn new strategies for regulating your emotions, managing conflicts, and building your tolerance for unpleasant feelings.


DBT has three primary goals:

  • to help you understand your emotions

  • to reduce emotional vulnerability

  • to decrease emotional suffering

DBT uses mindfulness to help you develop a state of emotional awareness and a sense of self-control. You learn that negative emotions are a natural part of life — they’re not necessarily “bad” or something to be avoided. You can learn ways to acknowledge emotions and not be controlled by them.


Tips for regulating your emotions

Being able to effectively regulate your emotions can improve your relationships, career, and overall quality of life. Research from 2014 suggests that people with strong emotional regulation skills have reduced levels of depression and stress-related physical illnesses.


There are several things you can do to improve your emotion regulation skills:

Stay present

You’ve likely heard the phrase “Learn to respond, not to react.” This is an important tip when trying to manage your emotions.


Our most destructive emotions appear when we mindlessly react to something without thinking it through. Staying conscious of your feelings, thoughts, and actions can help you stay in control.


Identify your emotions

As an extension of staying conscious, learn to label what you’re feeling. Try being specific, such as, “I’m hurt and confused that she treated me like that.” Emotions that are recognized and labeled are less likely to take us over without our permission.


Take opposite action

In this technique from DBT, you essentially do the opposite of what you’re feeling. Feeling really anxious? Act confident. Full of fear? Act brave. This helps you remember that your feelings aren’t set in stone and that you are ultimately the one in control.


Regular exercise

Intense emotions can feel like high levels of energy coursing through our bodies. If you’re feeling extremely anxious or angry, you might expel that extra energy in a healthy way by going for a run or doing another exercise you enjoy. You’ll likely feel much better afterward.


Avoid procrastination

Research shows that procrastination is a poor attempt at managing our emotional states.

When we procrastinate we are actively avoiding an unpleasant feeling, whether it’s starting a project, making a dreaded phone call, or cleaning the house. But as we all know, procrastination leads to guilt, which ultimately worsens our stress.


The best way to overcome procrastination is to get started right away, and take frequent, short breaks.

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