Dysregulation: Definition, Types, And What You Can Do To Find Balance
The human brain remains nature’s most complex organic processor. As incredible as our minds can be, there are also a wide variety of ways they can experience challenges. For many, effectively managing their emotions is often an insurmountable task. Read on to learn about the definition of dysregulation, the various types you may experience, and how you can find practical ways to manage your emotions through therapy.
What Is Dysregulation?
According to the American Psychological Association, dysregulation is considered excessive or poorly managed coping mechanisms in response to an emotional stimulus. This 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 things 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
Cognitive reappraisal difficulty
Types Of Dysregulation
Everyone has emotions; they are a natural part of the human experience. According to the hedonic adaptation behavioral theory, people typically may 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 involve a type of dysregulation, which are described below.
Human emotions are complex and varied psychological states that 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 engage 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
Behaviors may include avoiding emotional situations, denial, suppressing emotions, venting, aggression, and dwelling on the problem.
Often seen in numerous mental health conditions.
Autonomic dysregulation relates to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the portion of the nervous system responsible for controlling your bodily functions such as heart and breathing rate. The brain 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 have an instinctual fight or flight response that increases breathing speed and heart rate.
The body’s ANS cannot 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.
Often seen in those who’ve experienced trauma and with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD.
Emotion, Mood, And Affect
Many people use the terms mood, affect, and emotion interchangeably, but they have different clinical definitions. Affect is generally a core experience 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 emotional regulation may smile when happy or cry when sad and recognize these cues in others. However, people with affect dysregulation could display inappropriate responses, such as laughing at sad stories.
Mood dysregulation is often 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, a recent study said. 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.
Self-harm or destructive behaviors
Substance or alcohol use
Often seen in substance and alcohol use disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.
Cortisol is your brain’s primary neurochemical response to stress. Upon encountering a threat, the brain 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 doesn’t 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.
Muscle and weight loss
Mental Health Conditions Involving Dysregulation
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Fetal alcohol syndrome
Mood disorders, such as depression
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.
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, and inconsistent, unstructured outbursts.
Modeling positive, practical coping skills and emotional regulation for children can help avoid dysregulation. Children develop healthiest when given consistent affection, basic necessities, and age-appropriate responsibility/expectations. It can be crucial for children to feel safe at home, where they are allowed and encouraged to display and explore their emotions.
If your child is struggling with symptoms related to dysregulation, try to approach the situation from a compassionate mindset rather than 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 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 helps patients learn emotional literacy to identify positive and negative emotions, thought patterns, behaviors, and self-perceptions. Subsequent steps 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 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 involving several types of treatment and is often an intensive therapy.
Emotional Dysregulation Coping Skills
Journaling—Writing 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 helps your body and mind operate more efficiently.
Routine exercise is 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 such as BetterHelp 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 for a wide variety of disorders can be a practical, affordable alternative to treatment in the traditional in-office setting, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Virtual sessions are available for many mental health conditions, and patients often said opening up with the additional physical distance was easier.
Dysregulation can be challenging to manage on your own. The information presented in this article may help you understand the types of dysregulation and how working with a trained mental health professional can help you find healthy ways to manage your emotions and behaviors.