Dysregulation: Definition, Types, And What You Can Do To Find Balance

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban
Updated December 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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Is Emotional Dysregulation Affecting Your Quality Of Life?

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

Dysregulation Characteristics

  • 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. 

Emotional Dysregulation

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. 

Emotional dysregulation may involve: 

  • 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

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.

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Affect Dysregulation

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. 

Behavioral Dysregulation

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 Dysregulation

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:

  • Fatigue
  • 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

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Is Emotional Dysregulation Affecting Your Quality Of Life?

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. 

Takeaway

Behavioral, emotional, autonomic, cortisol, and affect dysregulation can all be types of dysregulation, and they are often present in various mental illnesses. Practicing helpful strategies on your own can improve dysregulation, but working with a licensed therapist, whether you do so online or in person, can be especially beneficial.

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