How do you behave when you get upset?
The answer probably varies. If you’re in a good headspace, you might take a walk or talk to a friend about your feelings. If your emotions get out of control, you might engage in some more dramatic (or even dangerous) behaviors.
The way you handle emotions may be different from the way your parents, friends, and colleagues handle emotions. Some people are “better” at managing their emotions than others. If behaviors become especially dangerous or a person is out of control, they may benefit from a therapist, diagnosis, or medication.
Why are some people better at handling emotions than others? Psychologists have been asking that question for a very long time. The subject of emotional regulation (and dysregulation) provides interesting insight into how people handle emotions, the importance of processing trauma, and what steps your family or friends might need to take if they are out of control.
Let’s talk about emotional regulation and dysregulation.
What Is Emotional Dysregulation?
Emotional regulation, also known as affect regulation, is the ability to recognize and manage emotions in a healthy way. If someone does not have these skills, they experience emotional dysregulation.
Emotional dysregulation comes out in a person’s actions. They may get upset and:
- Throw things across the room
- Yell and scream
- Have a temper tantrum
- Threaten to hurt themselves or others
- Binge on alcohol, drugs, or food
These are all unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions like fear or anger.
Emotional Dysregulation in Children
At one point or another, everyone experiences emotional dysregulation. We are not born with the ability to recognize our emotions and act appropriately. Babies yell, scream, and throw things all the time. This doesn’t mean that they are “broken.” Often, they just need to learn the skills to regulate their emotions.
For many people, this happens without a hitch. As the child grows and develops, they learn that temper tantrums are not appropriate. They pick up breathing exercises or learn how to share their emotions in a calm manner.
But not all children learn these skills.
Causes of Emotional Dysregulation
One potential cause of emotional dysregulation is simply not learning how to regulate emotions. This often happens when parents are enveloped in their own trauma. A parent may experience emotional dysregulation because of trauma or because they did not learn how to properly regulate their emotions. They cannot pass down skills that they have never learned.
Studies have shown that trauma can be passed down through generations. This process could cause emotional dysregulation.
Any type of trauma, particularly childhood trauma, can lead to emotional dysregulation. This may include physical or emotional trauma. Traumatic brain injuries, neglect, or abuse are all connected to a higher risk of experiencing emotional dysregulation. Dysregulation is often present in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder. This type of disorder doesn’t just develop in childhood. Teenagers and adults who experience trauma may also develop PTSD and begin to deal with their emotions in unhealthy ways.
People may also be genetically predisposed to emotional dysregulation. If you have a higher risk of disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, or autism spectrum disorders, you also have a higher risk of experiencing emotional dysregulation.
Similarly, substance abuse and emotional dysregulation have close ties. Someone with an inability to manage their emotions is more likely to rely on controlled substances as a “medication.” Overuse may lead to physical or psychological addictions to those substances.
Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation
Out of any disorder associated with emotional dysregulation, including substance abuse disorders or anxiety disorders, none stand out as much as borderline personality disorder. Emotional dysregulation is central to the signs, symptoms, and treatment of BPD.
Borderline personality disorder is defined by instability in mood and behavior.
Some of the key signs of BPD are:
- Impulsive and destructive behavior
- Extreme mood swings
- Extreme anger
The inability to handle emotions is present in most cases of borderline personality disorder.
Can You Treat Emotional Dysregulation?
Children should ideally develop the tools and skills to manage their emotions before they become an adult. Can adults who have been affected by trauma also learn the tools and skills to manage their emotions? Can someone treat emotional dysregulation?
It’s certainly possible, but requires the help of a professional. Nowadays, emotional dysregulation is treated through one of two therapies:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a more general type of behavioral therapy. It aims to examine why a patient is experiencing negative emotions. Often, negative emotions and behaviors are tied to negative thought patterns. Through CBT, a patient can adjust these thought patterns, therefore changing their emotions and behaviors. If a person feels more positively about themselves or their ability to handle their emotions, they can begin to experience emotional regulation more often. If you visit a therapist today, you are most likely to go through CBT.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a form of CBT that is used specifically to treat BPD and emotional dysregulation. (Some therapists use it to treat disorders like disordered eating and PTSD.) DBT, which was developed in the late 1980s, focuses on a set of skills that patients can use to build healthier relationships and manage emotions more effectively.
These skills include mindfulness, self-soothing, expressing your needs, and creating healthy boundaries.
It is possible for many people to learn how to handle their emotions. Instead of throwing a fit, they will decide to distract themselves in a healthy way. Instead of yelling at someone, they will sit down and have a productive conversation with them. If you feel as though your emotions are out of control or that you frequently cannot handle your emotions, it might be time to reach out to a therapist and learn these skills.