Our bodies operate like a fine tuned machine, well, some of the time they do. We survive and thrive through the smooth operation and integration of many working parts. Mostly, this occurs unconsciously in the darkness far from the musings of our minds. Our emotions smoothly guide and motivate. However, this is not always the case. Emotions may become overly aroused and misdirect. We refer to this in psychology as emotional dysregulation.
Emotions seem to wield a power that pierces the protective layers of unconsciousness, bringing inner-workings into the realm of the known. Emotions are a part of the complex machinery motivating survival, enhancing connections, and giving life to the inanimate. When emotions fail to achieve our biological life enhancing goals, we may say they are dysregulated.
Somehow, through faulty biological mechanisms, or traumatic exposures, we begin to misfire, inner drives act, pushing behaviors that inhibit rather than enrich. Maladaptive reactions include insurmountable fears when offered opportunities for growth, violent reactions to insecurities in desired relationships, and debilitating depressions. We may frightful seek escape dysregulated emotions through psychotic delusions or neurotic protections, blunting the impact of chaotic emotions.
Emotional Dysregulation is affective arousal that exceeds our window of tolerance. While emotionally dysregulated we may act in ways that damages futures.
Theories of Emotional Dysregulation
Typically, therapies that focus on emotions are particularly interested in the concept of emotional dysregulation. Marsha Linehan’s dialectical behavior therapy and Daniel Siegel’s interpersonal neurobiology provide detailed definitions and treatments for emotional dysregulation. Sheri van Dijk, a mental health therapist, specializing in the treatment of bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders using dialectical behavior therapy, describes emotional dysregulation as reacting “emotionally to things that most people wouldn’t typically react to,” she continues, the “reaction is more intense than the situation warrants,” and it takes… longer…to recover from it” (2012).
Daniel Siegel, renowned child psychiatrist, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote that “lack of mental well-being may often be a result of emotion dysregulation” (2020, Kindle location 6,916). Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre suggest that “affect dysregulation is…at the core of an individual’s increased vulnerability to stress and trauma and is seen to be a foundational element of psychological and physical problems” (2012, location 223).
Siegel suggests that emotional dysregulation is affective arousal that exceeds our window of tolerance. Each person’s window of tolerance is constructed from biological sensitivities and their available regulation resources. These “ruptures of emotion through the window of tolerance, such as episodes of rage or sadness, from which it is difficult to recover” create chaos. Siegel continues, “in these ruptured states, the mind loses its capacity for rational thinking, response flexibility, and self-reflection. Waves of intense arousal and sensations of ‘out-of-control’ emotion, such as anger or terror, may flood the mind” (2020, Kindle location 6,916).
Out-of-control is a key descriptor of a state of dysregulation. Instead of feeling affect serving as a source of information to integrate with other sources flowing from our environment, memory, and cognitive processes, the emotion commandeers the ship, taking over other processes. The heightened arousal is beyond normal regulation processes. This is a physical state. High arousal changes the flow of information—a necessary survival reaction to protect against threats.
The bodily changes is an evolutionary function. When environments threaten the organism, the HPA axis begins the release of chemicals that ultimately flood the blood stream with cortisol. These changes prepare the organism to survive against dangerous elements in their environment.
The problem ensues when these heightened states take over too frequently, with emotions of greater intensity and frequency, and staying longer than is necessary to serve as a survival mechanism. Under these heightened events, we protect against emergencies that do not exist. We refer to these frequent, out-of-control states of intense emotion as pervasive emotion dysregulation. People suffering from pervasive emotion dysregulation find that their “sensitive nature is difficult to manage, and this difficulty negatively affects the overall quality of (their) life” (Koons, 2016).
In a nut shell, emotional dysregulation is heightened arousal that interferes with healthy decision making.
Integration and Behavior
A key process that leads to healthy behavior is the ability to integrate multiple sources of information. Seigel explains that “dysregulation comes from non-integrated functioning.” He further adds, “integration produces harmonious and flexible functioning and that impairments to integration yield chaos, rigidity, or both(2020, location 852).
Regulating emotion prevents those sucking black holes of intense emotion to pull is in, blinding us from all other flows of information. Seigel writes “skills at regulating emotion allow us to achieve a wide range and high intensity of emotional experience while maintaining flexible, adaptive, and organized behavior” (location 4,250).
Why are Dysregulated Emotions Harmful?
A well-regulated (and integrated) system experiences feeling affects as a warning of a neglected core need. The inner alarm signals a need for action. When we are hungry, we eat. When we are tired, we sleep. And when lonely, we seek connection. Our body’s signal a need through a feeling, and we integrate that message into our behavioral response, eventually fulfilling that need (perhaps at a later time). Our behaviors release the stress of an unfulfilled need.
In dysregulation, our responses are chaotic. Heller and LaPierre explain that when we are “unable to manage powerful or difficult emotions, or when we are anxious or depressed, we are in a state of dysregulation. Disrupted sleep or eating patterns, anxiety, panic attacks, compulsive behaviors, depression, and addiction are some of the more common symptoms of dysregulation.”
Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-American neuroscientist and psychobiologist, leading authority on affective neuroscience, wrote that “when these ancient emotional forces of the human brain become tempestuous—dysregulated beyond our understanding—overwhelming psychological problems can emerge” (2009).
Agako, et al. wrote that “emotional difficulties, however, are associated with poorer psycho-social functioning, quality of life, and psychiatric distress” (2022).
Our lives are disrupted when dysregulation rules. Our means of resolving dysregulation tends to disrupt rather than enhance futures.
Heller and LaPierre emphasize, “the need to feel regulated, at ease in our body and in our life, is so important that when we are in a state of dysregulation, we attempt to find the regulation we need, often at any cost” (2012, location 208). We refer to this drive to regulate emotions as seeking a homeostatic balance.
Instead of effectively dealing with the problems causing emotional arousal, we justify, deny, or just get high. We soothe the anxiety, escape the emotion through learned defensive behaviors and fail to develop.
Emotional Dysregulation and Thoughts
Dysregulation may start as feeling affects but the chaos quickly moves to cognitions. We begin to ruminate over what we are feeling. Panksepp explains “emotional dysregulations are invariably accompanied by cognitive ‘stuff’—entangled in attributions, ruminations, and all sorts of hopes, plans, and worries” (2009).
Our thoughts get stuck on a cognitive hamster wheel, turning and turning without solving anything. Often, the thoughts magnify the emotion. We tend to create drama and trauma with the stories we create around a simple feeling affect.
A simple passing emotion of embarrassment, moves to angry justifications, harsh judgements, and elaborate stories of causes. The cognitions amp up the arousal, moving it from a passing affective state to full blown dysregulation.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?
We translate these feeling affects with labels. Physiological states of body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tightness, fluctuate in reaction to environments. When these states puncture consciousness, we give them a label, such as sadness, anger, or fear. We refer to our diverse labels of physiological states as emotion differentiation.
While we largely inherit the physiological states, we learn our labeling and behavioral response. These learned responses to emotional arousal may enhance the dysregulation by narrowing our window of tolerance.
Learned Emotional Regulation Techniques
We learn emotional regulation skills at an early age. Healthy adults have a range of emotional regulation skills that they can apply to a variety of feeling affects, keeping the affect within manageable realms.
Emotional regulation can be explained as “encompassing a broad set of inter-connected skills, namely, emotional awareness, clarity, and awareness; the ability to pursue goal-directed behavior and refrain from impulsive responses when distressed; and the ability to rely on adaptive emotional regulation strategies to feel better” (Garofalo, Neumann, & Velotti, 2020).
D’Agostino and his colleagues add to the description of emotional regulation that it is a “dynamic and reciprocal interaction, involving a flexible use of a wide variety of emotional-regulation strategies (such as active problem solving, cognitive reappraisal, self-soothing, emotional acceptance and awareness, information seeking, and support seeking)” (2017).
Effective Emotional Regulation Requires a Variety of Techniques
Effective emotional regulation requires having a variety of techniques and one’s disposal, knowing when and how to use a particular technique. We learn techniques through repeated exposure to skilled use of them by important figures in our lives, namely our caregivers.
Koons and Marsha Linehan suggest that “pervasive emotion dysregulation is created by repeated transactions over time between emotional vulnerability and something called the ‘invalidating environment.'” Koons adds, “when the social environment, especially the one in which we grow up, doesn’t teach us skills for managing our emotions, but instead regularly criticizes us for how we react, the result is pervasive emotion dysregulation” (2016, location 899).
In healthy attachment, an infant experiences the calming touch and regulating of emotion through close contact with their caregiver. This is referred to as dyadic regulation. The aroused child feels the calming and secure physiological state emitted from the caregiver, and this state is integrated by the child. However, if the child cries, and the cries invoke anxiety, fear or anger in the caregiver, these states are also integrated into the child. Emotions become a traumatic state to fear rather than beneficial flows of information to examine.
Siegel explains that “achieving emotion regulation is dependent upon social interactions.” These early interaction set the stage for teaching a child autonomous regulation as they move from infancy to toddler.
My grandchild soothes himself through words. When his mom leaves, he softly repeats words she taught him. “It’ okay, mom will be right back.” His words regulate his fears. Siegel refers to this process as “caregiver-guided self-regulation.” He explains this is when “the adult helps the child begin to regulate states of mind autonomously” (2020, location 6,114).
Parents and Their Emotions
Many parents struggle with their own emotions. A crying infant compounds a caregivers weakness in regulating emotions.
Allan N. Schore Ph.D. explains that “in these traumatic moments of marked discontinuities in the caregiver–infant relationship, the child’s attempts to use other-directed regulatory behaviors (e.g., crying, expressions of fear) are often met with continuing dysregulation by the mis-attuning caregiver; that is, further abuse” (2003, location 1,591).
Schore continues, “the stressed child, with only primitive abilities to cope with the overwhelming arousal induced by relational trauma and at the limit of his or her fragile regulatory capacities, experiences intense affect dysregulation, projects a distressing emotional communication, and then instantly dissociates” (location 1,588).
Panksepp adds to this that “during these episodes of the intergenerational transmission of attachment trauma the infant is matching the rhythmic structures of the mother’s dysregulated arousal states” (2009, location 2,623).
We experience life differently. Not only do we interpret experiences based on culture and family dynamics, we also have our own constellation of demands. We draw from our childhood experiences to face these demands, utilizing our collection of emotion regulating tools.
Cole, Michel & Teti explain that our “patterns of emotion regulation” to face our “related emotions” and individual demands “become characteristics of our personality” (1994). When individual resources are lacking, and demands extraordinarily high, emotions resist regulation, and we resort to maladaptive behaviors to combat the dysregulation.
Many organic disorders include symptoms of emotional dysregulation. Dysregulation is a combination between arousal and regulation. Many individual’s inherit biological impairments that create heightened feeling affects that outmatch even the best regulation techniques.
Borderline personality disorder, major depressions, Bi-polar disorder, and a variety of other mood disorders have labile emotional elements. In these cases, medication may be necessary to bring arousals within manageable levels where other regulating techniques may be helpful.
Another condition that may contribute to dysregulated emotions is alexithymia. In alexithymia individuals struggle to identify or label internal experiences. Alexithymia may be a personality trait or a symptom of a disorder like Asperger’s.
In terms of dysregulation, the childhood environments are not independent of the child. For example, a colicky infant cries louder, more high-pitched, and more urgent sounding than regular infant crying. These babies are difficult to soothe. A caregivers normal sure fire techniques for soothing a baby may fail, requiring greater frustration tolerance. Perhaps, more than a young parent possesses. A caregiver can soothe a less demanding child.
The colicky baby may encounter a much different parental reaction. I witnessed a young father explode at a family park in response to his crying infant, “why does he keep crying!” The discomforted child is met with a harsh reaction to their emotion, absorbing faulty lessons about emotions and a transgenerational passing of faulty regulating patterns may continue.
A Few Remarks by Psychology Fanatic
Research strongly supports the negative impact of early invalidating environments. However, while these emotional patterns of dysregulation may be stubborn, we can improve them. Our brains are not done forming. We are amazingly resilient. Neurons and synapses continue to form and connect. Healthy relationships with warm loving, intimate partners can puncture through the stubborn cycles, injecting new life into our souls.
We can still have the opportunity to experience the grandness of emotional intimacy, finding security that allows for emotional openness. In these relationships, we may learn through emotional validation, that we matter, our experience is valid and our feelings important.
These are the environments that heal. These are the environments that promote healthy regulation of emotions, eventual ending the pervasive cycle of dysregulated affect, and future damaging maladaptive attempts to survive.
Agako, A., Ballester, P., Stead, V., McCabe, R., & Green, S. (2022). Measures of Emotion Dysregulation: A Narrative Review. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 63(3), 376-391.
Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33(4), 344-358.
Cole, P., Michel, M., & Teti, L. (1994). THE DEVELOPMENT OF EMOTION REGULATION AND DYSREGULATION: A CLINICAL PERSPECTIVE. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(2‐3).
D’Agostino, A., Covanti, S., Rossi Monti, M., & Starcevic, V. (2017). Reconsidering Emotion Dysregulation. Psychiatric Quarterly, 88(4), 807-825.
Garofalo, C., Neumann, C., & Velotti, P. (2020). Psychopathy and Aggression: The Role of Emotion Dysregulation: . Journal of Interpersonal Violence: Concerned with the Study and Treatment of Victims and Perpetrators of Physical and Sexual Violence, 36(23-24), NP12640-NP12664.
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Koons, Cedar D. (2016). The Mindfulness Solution for Intense Emotions: Take Control of Borderline Personality Disorder with DBT. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.
Miller, D., Vachon, D., & Aalsma, M. (2012). Negative Affect and Emotion Dysregulation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(10), 1316-1327.
Panksepp, Jaak (2009). Brain Emotional Systems and Qualities of Mental Life From Animal Models of Affect to Implications for Psychotherapeutics. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. Editors Diana Fosha and Daniel J. Siegel. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.
Schore, Allan D. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) 1st Edition.
Siegel, Daniel (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Van Dijk, Sheri (2012). Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.
Xu, X., Spinrad, T., Cookston, J., & Matsumoto, D. (2020). The Relations of Parental Emotion Dysregulation and Emotion Socialization to Young Adults’ Emotion Dysregulation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(3), 725-737.