Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulty in managing emotions or in keeping them in check. These may also be thought of as mood swings or labile moods. It can involve experiencing intense emotions such as sadness, irritability, frustration, or anger that are comparatively more heightened than expected, relative to the situation that triggered them.
What is emotional dysregulation?
Emotion dysregulation involves difficulties with negative affective states e.g., sadness and anger.
Emotional dysregulation might affect children or adults. Adolescents may be particularly at risk due to this developmental period in a person’s life being recognizably a time of increased stress due to puberty and peer context. Although it is a common perception that children learn to manage their emotions as they grow up, for some effectively managing emotions continues to be problematic well into adulthood.
Those with emotional dysregulation might not easily recognize their own emotions and can become confused or guilty about emotions experienced such that behavior is not readily controlled and decision making becomes a challenge.
Experiencing intense emotions can lead to situations in which a sufferer is unable to calm down easily. People with emotional dysregulation might try to avoid difficult emotions and when experiencing them they can easily become impulsive. Another example is that those with emotional dysregulation might be overly negative. As a result, there is a risk for:
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
Other symptoms include high-risk sexual behaviors, extreme perfectionism, and eating disorders.
In children emotional dysregulation exhibits itself through temper tantrums, crying, and refusing to talk or to make eye contact.
Over time the condition may interfere with the quality of life leading to interpersonal problems, issues at home and work, or, in the case of children, at school.
Causes of emotional dysregulation
Scientists believe that in the experience of emotional dysregulation there is a problem with the emotional braking mechanism in the brain caused by a reduction in the response of certain neurotransmitters. This leads an individual to experience an ongoing “fight or flight” response whereby the pre-frontal cortex shuts down in times of heightened stress.
There a several possible reasons why a person may develop this condition and it is often co-morbid with another larger mental health problem (see below). Possible causes are:
1. Child neglect
In the case of neglect, there is a failure on the part of the caregiver to cater to the basic needs of the child. Here the caregiver does not provide adequate levels of physical and or emotional care.
2. Early childhood trauma
Whereby traumatic events are experienced early on in life during the critical period of a child’s development.
3. Traumatic brain injury
Brain dysfunction is caused by a dramatic blow to the head, for example.
4. Chronic invalidation
When a person’s thoughts and feelings are repeatedly ignored, rejected, or else judged.