Dysregulation: Definition, Types, And What You Can Do To Find Balance
Types of dysregulation can include emotional dysregulation, autonomic dysregulation, affect dysregulation, behavioral dysregulation, and cortisol dysregulation. These kinds of dysregulation are often present in a variety of mental health disorders. It can be possible to work through dysregulation with the guidance of a licensed mental health professional in person or online. You may also practice various strategies on your own to improve dysregulation symptoms.
What Is Dysregulation?
According to the American Psychological Association, dysregulation is considered to be excessive or poorly managed coping mechanisms in response to an emotional stimulus. These can include inappropriate or extreme emotional reactions, such as outbursts of temper or violence, deliberate self-harm, and other maladaptive or harmful behaviors.
As with many concepts in the mental health field, it can be challenging to create an encompassing and specific definition; most medical professionals agree that dysregulation has multiple overlapping areas of comparison, according to a 2017 study.
- Decreased emotional awareness
- Inadequate emotional reactivity
- Intense experience and expression of emotions
- Emotional rigidity
- Cognitive reappraisal difficulty
Types Of Dysregulation
In general, everyone has emotions; they are typically a natural part of the human experience. According to the hedonic adaptation behavioral theory, people typically go through positive or negative events and experience an emotional reaction, identify and process their feelings, make necessary adjustments to any changes, and then return to a relative happiness baseline. However, the process can be challenging for those with dysregulation issues. Several mental health conditions may involve a type of dysregulation, and these are described below.
Human emotions can be complex and varied psychological states that usually involve three components—a subjective experience that inspires some emotion, a physiological response, and a behavioral expression. For example, when you experience anger, you may feel intense displeasure, making your skin flush and your heart race. You may also respond to the situation in many ways, such as leaving, de-escalating, or arguing.
- Lack of emotional awareness, understanding, and acceptance of your emotions
- Insufficient coping skills to manage your emotional responses
- Unwillingness to go through emotional distress while pursuing your goals
- The inability to take part in goal-directed behaviors while experiencing emotional distress
- Avoidance of emotional situations, denial, suppression of emotions, venting, aggression, and dwelling on the problem
Autonomic dysregulation normally relates to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the portion of the nervous system typically responsible for controlling your bodily functions such as heart and breathing rate. The brain usually sends electrical signals through neurotransmitters or chemicals in your brain to initiate changes in your body’s function. For example, when confronted with danger, people typically have an instinctual fight or flight response that increases breathing speed and heart rate.
In the case of autonomic dysregulation, the body’s ANS may not correctly regulate bodily functions. For example, people with anxiety disorders may feel overenergized and unable to calm themselves, or those with autism spectrum disorder may be unable to control sensory input. This type of dysregulation is often seen in those who’ve experienced trauma and with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD.
Many people use the terms mood, affect, and emotion interchangeably, but they usually have different clinical definitions. Affect is generally a core experience that is consistently and unilaterally felt by everyone, such as methods to express sadness or anger. These emotional cues are often instantly recognizable even when language barriers prevent effective communication. It can help to think of affect as an outward expression of your feelings. Emotion can refer to the transient feelings you may experience, process, and regularly forget, while mood tends to mean a long-term emotional trend.
People with functional affect regulation may smile when they’re happy or cry when they’re sad, and recognize these cues in others. However, people with affect dysregulation could display inappropriate responses, such as laughing at sad stories.
Affect dysregulation is frequently seen with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depressive disorders, and other mental health conditions.
Some people have difficulty controlling or regulating their behaviors, such as those who live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many psychologists believe behavioral and emotional dysregulation are linked through their use as an attempt to address dysregulated emotions, according to a recent study. For example, if someone consumes excessive amounts of alcohol to numb feelings of sadness, they may engage in the maladaptive coping mechanism too often and develop an alcohol use disorder. Other forms of behavioral dysregulation can include:
- Self-harm or destructive behaviors
- Substance or alcohol misuse
- Binge eating
Behavioral dysfunction is often seen in substance and alcohol use disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.
Cortisol is normally your brain’s primary neurochemical response to stress. Upon encountering a threat, the brain usually releases it to help your body prepare for a conflict. You may notice an increased heart rate and faster breathing. While this can be a helpful reaction if you’re actually facing a threat, some mental health conditions can trigger this reaction at inappropriate times. However, in those with cortisol dysregulation, the body may not reduce the production of the neurochemical when the danger has passed.
This retention of cortisol can lead to physical health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, mood swings, and other psychological phenomena. Cortisol dysregulation can lead to:
- Muscle and weight loss
- Skin changes
Mental Health Conditions Involving Dysregulation
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Brain injury
- Bipolar disorder
- Mood disorders, such as depression
- Panic disorder
- Attachment issues
- Anxiety disorders
- Psychological trauma
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?
Why do some people have trouble managing their emotions while others can adjust quickly and easily to emotional reactions? While many researchers are studying the topic, there appear to be multiple causes for emotional dysregulation. However, a recent study shows that psychological trauma occurring during abuse* or neglect from a caregiver during childhood can frequently lead to emotional regulation issues. Researchers also said that if children do not see their parents model healthy behaviors and emotional management coping skills, they may be at higher risk for dysregulation.
*If you or a loved one is facing or witnessing any form of abuse, please know that help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Children With Emotional Dysregulation
- Children with emotional regulation difficulties often display symptoms at their current developmental level. Children with dysregulation may demonstrate impatience, disproportionate anger, or upset when forced to meet expectations, as well as inconsistent, unstructured outbursts.
- Modeling positive, practical coping skills and emotional regulation for children can help avoid dysregulation. Children tend to develop healthiest when they are given consistent affection, basic necessities, and age-appropriate responsibilities and expectations. It can be crucial for children to feel safe at home, where they may be allowed and encouraged to display and explore their emotions.
- If your child is struggling with symptoms related to dysregulation, you might try to approach the situation from a compassionate mindset rather than by punishing behaviors your child may already be trying to control.
Treatments For Emotional Dysregulation
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a frequent treatment for many forms of emotional dysregulation as part of a comprehensive treatment that may include medications, behavior modification training, or sessions with a psychoanalyst. While therapy usually focuses on helping you identify and replace maladjusted coping skills, thought patterns, and behaviors, you can also use some methods at home to ease the distress caused by dysregulation.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a research-backed treatment method that typically helps patients learn emotional literacy to identify positive and negative emotions, thought patterns, behaviors, and self-perceptions. Subsequent steps may involve replacing maladaptive patterns with healthier methods and developing a repertoire of practical coping skills.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
A subset of CBT, this therapy normally takes a patient-centric approach, targeting the distortions in your emotional systems and helping you learn to manage your feelings and reactions. DBT is a structured program usually involving several types of treatment and is often an intensive therapy.
Emotional Dysregulation Coping Skills
- Journaling about your feelings can help you gain the perspective to better understand your emotions, which can help you build your emotional regulation tolerance.
- Yoga and mindful meditation can help you strengthen the connection to your inner thoughts, which can help you recognize, process, and express your feelings.
- Practicing a grateful lifestyle can help you shift your values and use positive reinforcement to facilitate meaningful change.
- Deep breathing exercises can help you calm your emotions and focus your thoughts.
- Sticking to a sleep routine can help your body and mind operate more efficiently.
- Routine exercise is often an essential part of overall well-being.
How Therapy Can Help You Regulate Your Emotions
Dysregulation can be disruptive in your life, but working with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform can offer professional support and guidance as you learn to identify, process, express, and ultimately control your emotions through a comprehensive treatment plan, including psychotherapy. Online therapy can empower you to get the help you deserve from the comfort of your home at a time that fits your schedule.
Online therapy for a wide variety of disorders can be a practical, affordable alternative to treatment in the traditional in-office setting. As this study explains, it’s generally as effective as in-person therapy.
What is the cause of emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation has many causes, not all of which are known. It is associated with several mental disorders, like borderline personality disorder and ADHD, but the mechanisms that cause emotional dysregulation in those conditions are not settled science. Furthermore, many conditions linked to poor emotion regulation are also associated with adverse conditions in childhood, including abuse or neglect. It is possible that early childhood trauma is the most prominent cause of emotional dysregulation, but research is ongoing.
What conditions have emotional dysregulation?
Several mental health conditions are associated with emotional dysregulation. It has been found in personality disorders, such as borderline or histrionic personality disorder. It is also associated with mood disorders like depression. Trauma is also implicated as a progenitor of emotional dysregulation. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder are significantly more likely to experience emotional dysregulation than those without trauma histories.
Significant emotional dysregulation is also associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and is frequently found in those on the autism spectrum. Anxiety disorders are also known to cause emotion dysregulation, such as when a person with panic disorder experiences a panic attack. Finally, frontal lobe disorders, which are related to difficulty inhibiting actions, are also commonly associated with emotional dysregulation.
How do you get emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation has many causes. It is frequently associated with several mental health conditions, including personality, mood, and neurodevelopmental disorders. Dysregulation is significantly more likely to appear if a person has experienced adverse childhood experiences or a traumatic event they are struggling to recover from.
In addition to traumas during both adulthood and childhood, emotional dysregulation may appear if a person is struggling with addiction or if they experience a traumatic brain injury. In both cases, improvement is possible as the person heals and learns how emotional dysregulation is managed.
How do I know if I am dysregulated?
If you’re worried about how you regulate emotions, you can start taking control by noting how dysregulated you are. Take note of any of these common signs of emotional dysregulation:
- Your emotions feel disproportionate. If you frequently “overreact,” you may have trouble regulating emotions. That might mean you jump quickly to anger, are overly fearful of things others are not, or struggle to take moderately bad news without feeling intense sadness.
- Calming down is hard. Very few people can “clamp” their emotions quickly and easily. Most people take at least a little while to calm down, but if you find that a relatively minor adverse event ruins your whole day, you may be struggling to let those feelings go.
- Your relationships are affected. Intense, disproportionate emotional reactions can damage interpersonal relationships, such as those with friends, family, or romantic partners. If you find that others walk on eggshells around you, they may be trying to avoid an emotional outburst.
- Your actions have embarrassed you. Do you feel awkward or embarrassed when your emotions fade? That may mean that, on consideration, you may think you have overreacted.
- You avoid things that might cause an emotional reaction. Many people who struggle to regulate their emotions withdraw from others to avoid emotional encounters. If you actively avoid people or places because you are worried you’ll become upset, you may have trouble regulating your emotions.
- You engage in self-destructive habits. Self-harm, excessive substance use, or other harmful ways of managing emotions may indicate a problem with emotional regulation. Substance abuse, especially, is a common problem for people who struggle to control their emotions.
Is emotional dysregulation part of ADHD?
Emotional dysregulation has long been a diagnostic feature of ADHD. Early theories surrounding ADHD didn’t focus on attention and concentration but considered emotional dysregulation the chief symptom. Evidence suggests that those with ADHD have dysfunctions in several critical parts of the brain, including the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral striatum.
The amygdala, which regulates many low-level emotions like anger and fear, is often found to be hyperactivated in those with ADHD. The orbitofrontal cortex, a higher-level brain region, communicates with the amygdala and often “overrides” the amygdala to effectively regulate emotion.
In those with ADHD, the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala often have fewer connections than in neurotypical individuals, hampering the orbitofrontal cortex’s ability to regulate emotion. Finally, the ventral striatum is associated with reward processing and mediating positive emotions. It is less responsive in those with ADHD and is often implicated as to why those diagnosed with the condition tolerate delays worse than those without it.
Is dysregulation a mental disorder?
Emotional dysregulation is not a mental health condition in its own right. However, it is a symptom of many mental health concerns, and it is commonly associated with mental illness. The cause might be neurodevelopmental, such as dysregulation in ADHD, or it may be due to adverse childhood experiences that prevented the regulatory parts of the brain from developing properly. It is also possible to develop dysregulation as an adult following exposure to a traumatic event or experiencing an injury to the brain.
Why do I cry so easily?
There is no threshold for how often a person can cry. Some people are naturally more likely to cry than others, and other external factors, like cultural norms, can also play a role. However, excessive crying or feeling sad often can be a sign of mental health concerns, and it may be worthwhile to investigate the source of your negative feelings.
Excessive crying might be caused by a mood disorder, like major depression, or by overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety. One unique medical condition is also known to cause excessive displays of emotion, pseudobulbar affect. It can cause sudden mood swings and intense laughter or crying following very little external stimuli. If you’re worried about how often you cry or your elevated sadness is new, consider contacting a qualified professional for assistance.
Why do I feel like I can't control my emotions?
It is important to distinguish between controlling your feelings and how you express them. Emotional dysregulation is most often associated with how emotions are presented to others. If you can consistently “put on a happy face,” it is likely that your emotional regulation is intact. However, that doesn’t mean you aren’t putting in extra effort to appear happy and calm.
If your relationships with friends, family, and coworkers have been affected by your emotions, or if you have been embarrassed by an emotional outburst in the past, you may be experiencing emotional dysregulation. It may be helpful to speak with a therapist or other mental health professional about your concerns; emotional dysregulation can have many causes, and a professional can help you understand why your feelings are overwhelming. Emotion dysregulation treatment is possible, and a therapist is likely to help.
What does emotional dysregulation look like in a child?
Learning how to manage emotions is an important part of growing up. Every child struggles to manage their emotions at some point, and some may continue to struggle well into adolescence. However, suppose a child or adolescent has outbursts or tantrums that are persistent and severe. In that case, it is possible that a mental disorder, like disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, might be the cause.
Like adults, children with emotional dysregulation tend to experience feelings disproportionate to what is causing them. For example, consider a 10-year-old child who is anticipating a reward. After being told their reward is delayed by a few hours, the child throws a tantrum and becomes extremely aggressive. It is reasonable to expect a 10-year-old to tolerate a short delay of something they are excited about, and a disproportionate response might indicate problems regulating emotions.
What is an example of emotional dysregulation?
Emotional regulation is defined in scientific literature as “an individual’s ability to modify an emotional state so as to promote adaptive, goal-oriented behavior.” Therefore, emotional dysregulation is likely to include any behavior that does not promote adaptive behavior. In practice, this likely refers to the adverse effects one experiences from emotional dysregulation, like damaged social relationships and or avoiding things that may provoke emotion.
For example, consider an employee named Mike who struggles to control their emotions at work. One day, a coworker on Mike’s team accidentally drops and breaks an object. The object is important to what the team is working on but is not irreplaceable, and the error amounts to only a minor convenience. Despite this, Mike begins to shout angrily at the offending coworker, frightening them and prompting other team members to comment on how disproportionate Mike’s response is to the situation.
Mike is called into a meeting with his boss and HR, where he is terminated for his behavior. Based on his outburst, his employer cannot trust that Mike is not a liability to the other employees at the organization. Unless Mike deliberately attempted to get fired, his emotional dysregulation has certainly prevented his adaptation (by accepting that the object breaking did not warrant an emotional response) and disrupted his long-term goals (by costing him his job).
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