Emotional Dysregulation

Did you ever feel that your emotions and thoughts are out of control? Maybe you have unpredictable outbursts of anger that are not really appropriate to the situation, or experience flare-ups of anxiety, mood, or attitude. In short, do you occasionally show emotional fluctuations when it seems that your emotional life is poorly regulated and beyond your control? Many people would answer “yes” to these questions, and the fluctuations are pretty mild and temporary. But what if they are frequent – almost chronic – and extreme in their intensity? In this case, the instability in emotional expression is called emotional dysregulation. The condition can obviously be quite unsettling, and it may interfere with your relationships and general quality of life.

Emotional dysregulation can exhibit itself in a variety of emotions and thoughts: Anxiety; shame and anger; self-harm; substance abuse; perfectionism; conflict in interpersonal relationships; eating disorder; and even suicidal thoughts. The pattern seems to overlap considerably with borderline personality disorder, which affects the way you think and feel about yourself and others, and includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships. People diagnosed with borderline personality disorder often experience emotional dysregulation with emotional sensitivity, reactivity, and difficulty finding an emotional level that feels stable.   

How might all this emotional lability develop? What sorts of experiences could cause emotional expressions to become so inconsistent, changeable, uncertain, turbulent, unsettled, and undependable?  Some psychologists say the condition develops out of a childhood characterized by caregiver abuse that involves deprivation of basic needs. The deprivation would show itself in failure to provide consistent and adequate supervision; lack of basic health care, clothing, education, and safe housing; an inability to meet emotional and social needs; and rejecting, ignoring, or harshly judging the child’s thoughts and feelings. In short, the child is raised in a roller coaster environment of uncertainty, ups and downs, and unpredictability that makes emotional stability difficult to develop and maintain.

Regardless of the cause, adults tormented with emotional dysregulation need professional help in learning how to regulate better their emotions, how to mitigate extreme reactions to emotional triggers and stimuli, and in general how to control more effectively their expression of thoughts and feelings. Effective techniques in therapy include helping the sufferer build new skills and actions that can be consistently applied in different situations. A professional mental health care provider can help sufferers learn and practice practical behaviors that can increase satisfaction, foster higher self-esteem, and give them a greater sense of control over their emotions. Examples could include things like taking a college course, learning a new skill, completing school, requesting new opportunities for advancement at work, or volunteering to help those in need.

Whatever the case, note the emphasis on actions, doing things. The best way to increase emotional consistency is not solely by positive thinking, but by consistently doing things that tend to bring you positive results, meaning feelings of contentment and satisfaction from taking on something new. When the situation is structured appropriately, self-esteem will increase; confidence will increase; and you will teach yourself the value of behaving in a predictable way. You will be able to say, “I gave it my all and did the best I could. I will look for ways to improve and do even better tomorrow.”

Rory came to therapy because he was suffering from panic attacks. He didn’t realize it, but these attacks were telling him he needed to make some important life changes. Like many cases, the source of panic attacks was actually anger, not anxiety. He viewed himself as a failure, which resulted in unpredictable waves of anxiety. He also had chaotic wake-sleep cycles with no consistent routine, and his social life was unstable as friends found him unreliable and disordered.

Rory had achieved his life-long career dream, but found his profession did not give him the glamour and luster he thought it would. He wanted to get married and have a family, but not with his present lifestyle. He knew he was young enough to pursue another career, but he was not moving in that direction. Thus, he was unconsciously angry at himself for not moving toward a more appropriate and productive goal. His agitation, panic, and tumultuous disorganized attacks were a signal that he needed to look seriously at making major life changes. Originally, Rory viewed his panic as the problem he had to confront, and he saw the attacks as a sign or weakness. But in fact, the attacks were providing valuable information: “Things are not right! You need to take corrective action.” Ultimately, he made the changes he needed to make. He investigated alternative careers, and he took courses at a local college to prepare himself for a career change. When he began to make specific alternative career plans and follow through with them, his panic attacks subsided.

Let’s be clear about Rory: his life changes were not easy to face. But the changes were productive, and they put him on a much smoother life road. Rory’s problem was not the panic attacks, but that he was lounging around stagnating, wasting away in a pool of frustration, confusion, and muddled non-productivity. Only by forcing himself to face challenges, could he produce satisfying outcomes resulting from personal autonomous efforts.

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