Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director at ARC

Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe a condition in which emotional responses are poorly regulated by the brain. An individual with emotional dysregulation struggles to manage the intensity and duration of their emotions. Their mood may fluctuate suddenly and extremely, causing problems in social settings and with interpersonal relationships. This research explains that individuals with emotional dysregulation have “a tendency for emotions to spiral out of control, change rapidly, get expressed in intense and unmodified forms —and/or overwhelm both coping capacity and reasoning.”

Developmental research suggests that there are biological and environmental factors that may contribute to the development of this condition. Chaotic and stressful early life experiences like child abuse, neglect, trauma  —and insecure attachments with caregivers are believed to be significant contributors. This is because infants are not born with the ability to self-soothe; Rather, they learn how to manage their emotions through interactions with primary caregivers.

What Does Emotional Dysregulation Look Like?

There are some signs to be aware of that could indicate that you are struggling with emotional dysregulation. Most of them are characterized by their extreme nature and out-of-proportion responses to the issues being faced. These signs include:

Feeling extremely shameful or angry

Engaging in self-harm or suicidal ideation

Using substances excessively

Engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors

Trying to achieve perfection in actions

Experiencing volatile interpersonal relationships

Bursting out in anger or crying fits

Making accusatory statements and holding grudges

Being overly avoidant of conflict

Experiencing intense mood swings

Emotional dysregulation has been observed in several mental health disorders including post-traumatic stress syndrome, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Some Examples of How Emotional Dysregulation Manifests 

Have you ever made plans with a prospective partner, but they had to cancel? Did you respond by flipping out on them and jumping to conclusions about how they feel about you? Maybe you were at the store and needed help, but no one could satisfy your query. Did you become enraged, shout at the customer service representative, and storm out as if no one wants to help you? Another scenario might involve a friend that you view as your best friend but wants to hang out with other people occasionally. Do you respond by deciding you can’t trust them and resort to cutting them out of your life completely?

If any of these scenarios seem familiar, you may have trouble regulating your emotions. Because you feel like you’re being mistreated, these emotional tantrums can feel justified while in the moment. Once you’ve settled down, which can take some time, you may feel guilty and embarrassed as you realize that you completely overreacted. Or did you? You may feel extremely conflicted or confused as to what the “right” response should have been. It can all be very overwhelming. Be assured that there is an explanation for this —and know there are treatments that can help you.

How Emotional Dysregulation Can Lead To Addiction

These emotional issues can make it difficult to work and interact with others. Relationships can feel like a rollercoaster and making decisions can also be challenging when emotions are clouding your judgment. You may resort to unhealthy coping techniques like binge eating, self-harm, or excessive drinking and drug use. Substance use can cloud your mind even more and suck you into an addiction that can deteriorate your mental health.

In a paper titled Emotion Dysregulation in Addiction by Eric L. Garland et al., the researchers explain that decades of studies provide robust evidence that individuals who experience emotion dysregulation are more vulnerable to addictive behavior. They also note that studies show that chronic substance use can also harm an individual’s ability to regulate emotional responses. Although you may get a sense of relief from using drugs or alcohol to numb painful and disorienting emotions, substances can make everything much worse in the short and long term.

How You Can Manage Your Emotional Dysregulation

The main treatment option for emotional dysregulation is dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT). This commonly used and effective modality seeks to establish healthy thought and behavioral patterns. A core component of DBT is learning how to manage your emotions and tolerate the many stressors your encounter in life.

You will learn new skills in these four areas:

  1. Distress tolerance
  2. Emotion regulation
  3. Interpersonal effectiveness
  4. Mindfulness

Don’t forget that getting proper and sufficient nutrients through a healthy diet is the key to the maintenance of your mental health. Deficiencies in vitamin D, for instance, can put you at risk of conditions like depression. Daily exercise is also important, but not just for physical reasons. Exercise boosts serotonin levels in the brain, which are central to mood regulation. This can help moderate anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Emotional dysregulation is a condition in which emotional responses are poorly regulated by the brain. At Authentic Recovery Center, we understand how hard it can be to work through these issues alone. You might feel guilty, embarrassed, or even confused about your behavior.  We offer a variety of treatments, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), that can help address your substance use disorder and emotional dysregulation. Call (866) 786-1376 today to learn more.