What Is Emotional Dysregulation?


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Emotions never remain the same. Each person experiences episodes of sadness, anger, or happiness depending on their situation. When these emotions become difficult to manage, it can lead to problems at school, work, or with family. People who struggle with their emotions may have a condition called emotional dysregulation disorder. 

What Is Emotional Dysregulation? 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), emotional dysregulation is any response to an emotion that is excessive or not managed effectively. There are four main factors involved in emotional dysregulation. 

  • Lacking an awareness of understanding of emotions.
  • A deficit in adaptive coping skills and strategies for managing emotions.
  • Unwillingness to allow the experience of distressing emotions, particularly when in pursuit of a goal.
  • Inability to carry out goal-directed behaviors when under emotional distress. 

People who have this condition attempt to deny or suppress their emotions, because acknowledging their emotions is uncomfortable. 

In doing so, they may:

  • Avoid places, situations, or people that cause difficult emotions.
  • Experience persistent thoughts about topics that cause emotional distress.
  • Actively suppress their emotions in an attempt to avoid them.
  • Vent about a distressing topic or emotion. 

These strategies help people with their emotional dysregulation in the short-term. However, they eventually worsen a person’s unhealthy responses to negative emotions. 

Symptoms of Emotional Dysregulation 

People with emotional dysregulation react differently to events that wouldn’t typically result in such a reaction. Due to the lack of ability to acknowledge and process their emotions, affected people may show a variety of symptoms. 

These signs and symptoms may include: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Self-harm
  • Thoughts of suicide 
  • Angry outbursts
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use 
  • Involvement in high-risk behaviors
  • Extreme perfectionism
  • Eating disorders
  • Intense and uncontrollable emotions 

People with emotional dysregulation can feel confused about their own response to distressing events. In addition, friends and family may become frustrated at their loved one for “overreacting” to a situation. 

They may also feel frustrated at their loved one for refusing to show emotion when they should. This is their loved one trying to manage uncomfortable emotions. People with this condition may not have the skills to handle them more effectively.

Related Conditions Associated with Emotional Dysregulation 

People with severe emotional dysregulation exhibit extreme reactions or experience frequent mood swings. Therefore, their condition can be mistaken for other mental health conditions like rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Obtaining a correct diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional is essential for determining the appropriate treatment. 

On the other hand, this condition can also co-occur with other mental health disorders. 

The conditions frequently diagnosed along with emotional dysregulation are: 

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD). Individuals with BPD may experience relationship problems and exhibit impulsive actions. 
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Typically diagnosed in childhood, ADHD can continue into adulthood.  Individuals with ADHD have difficulty controlling their impulsive behaviors and find concentrating on specific tasks.  
  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD): People with complex PTSD have experienced severe and prolonged trauma. This includes  childhood physical abuse and neglect, which affects their ability to effectively cope with emotions. 
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD): Diagnosed in childhood, a child with DMDD shows extreme temper tantrums and significant mood swings.
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD): ASD is a developmental disorder that is typically detected in childhood. This disorder impacts a child’s ability to communicate and behave in accordance with developmental milestones. 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is a form of anxiety that causes unwanted thoughts and obsessions. 

If emotional dysregulation co-occurs with another mental health condition, the individual may show more severe signs and symptoms. This is especially common in cases where the person has not been treated for emotional dysregulation. 

Cause of Emotional Dysregulation

The exact cause of emotional dysregulation is unknown. However, a combination of various factors may lead to the development of the disorder. For some individuals, early childhood trauma may play a part in the occurrence of emotional dysregulation. Additionally, caregivers who themselves struggle with untreated the condition may unknowingly role model unhealthy emotional coping skills to their children. 

Emotional dysregulation disorder may still occur without a history of childhood trauma or family history. Research into this condition indicates that the disorder may also stem from an irregularity in neurotransmitters within the brain. These irregularities affect the prefrontal cortex, which then shuts down in times of major stress. 

Regardless of the cause, it’s important for children and adults with emotional dysregulation to obtain effective treatment. Left unaddressed, the condition can lead to a lifetime of struggle with school, work performance, relationships, and general life achievement. 

Is There a Cure for Emotional Dysregulation Disorder? 

While emotional dysregulation is typically diagnosed in childhood, it can continue well into adulthood if left untreated. There is no medication or treatment that will immediately cure the condition. However, learning positive coping tools through professional therapy can help. Licensed mental health clinicians can help individuals and their loved ones to manage emotional dysregulation disorder and reduce its adverse effects. 

Therapy for Emotional Dysregulation Disorder

Talk therapy with a licensed professional teaches individuals with this condition how to cope with their emotions. For most people, the most beneficial form of therapy is dialectical behavior therapy, also known as DBT.  

DBT was developed by therapist Marsha Linehan in the 1980s. It was initially intended as a treatment for a similar disorder called borderline personality disorder (BPD). Dialectical behavior therapy encourages people to validate their emotions, respond to their emotions effectively, and regulate their reactions to their emotions. 

DBT is associated with another form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT sessions with a licensed therapist can assist people with emotional regulation disorder. They can help by exploring more helpful ways of thinking and behaving in times of high stress. 

Therapy for this disorder may also include addressing past trauma or challenges in relationships. This is done to help identify triggers and resolve past trauma.

Medications for Emotional Dysregulation Disorder 

In some cases, using medications with talk therapy can improve the chances for success.  The primary medications used for this condition are the same as those prescribed for ADHD. These medications target the same brain networks responsible for emotional dysregulation, helping to reduce symptoms. 

The medications used for ADHD also address the same impairments. These impairments include impulsive behavior and angry outbursts. Such impairments are not uncommon in individuals with emotional dysregulation.  

Nevertheless, every person is unique. A licensed therapist may suggest other medications based on a person’s health status, situation, and personal preferences. 

Individualized Mental Health Treatment in Minnesota 

Caring for mental health is essential. If you or your loved one has symptoms of emotional dysregulation disorder, we can help. Steps for Change in Minnesota offers a variety of resources to support people with this disorder. We also have trusted experience treating other mental health conditions. 

Contact us today for more information on how we can help.