Almost everyone can relate: we've all said and/or done things that we wish we hadn't when we were upset. The reality is, our emotions can sometimes get us into trouble. But why does this happen? The most common reason for this is that when our emotions peak, they start to take over—something in the clinical world that we like to call emotional dysregulation.
What is emotional dysregulation?
Simply put: emotional dysregulation is when we are unable to modulate or control our emotions effectively. In other words, it feels like our emotions are controlling us instead of us controlling them. Emotional dysregulation can be a major barrier to maintaining relationships or effective problem solving. That is, the more we are upset, the less likely we will be to do anything other than be upset.
Why do we have emotions?
First and foremost, emotions help protect us. Think about it: if you were some zebra grabbing a drink at your local watering hole and you caught a whiff of a lion, the emotion you would most likely feel would be fear. Because of this fear, you would probably hightail it out of there. Thus, emotions help to keep us safe.
The other thing that emotions do is to help us communicate. They can be strong drivers for change. For example, many highly emotional people end up being major influencers in the world. They become passionate about causes, social justice issues, etc., and are often more perceptive about how others are feeling (Linehan, 2015). Emotions are only problematic when they control us.
Responses to emotion.
Where some people act in extreme outward ways as a result of dysregulated emotional states or chronic stress, others may shut down and dissociate completely, namely, although appearing very calm, cool and reasonable, some people isolate and stay quiet because that is the ruling state of their emotions—in a sense, they freeze, feeling overwhelmed by their emotion (Linehan, 2015).
It is important to remember that having strong emotions is NOT the same as being emotionally dysregulated.
For example, we may be overwhelmed with emotion when we lose someone we love, finish a project we’ve been working on for a long time, or hold our new child or grandbaby—although in these scenarios we are highly emotional, we are still in control. Emotional dysregulation, on the other hand, is when emotions are in control and reason is thrown out the window (Linehan, 2015).
Most people would agree that it is not in one’s best interests to try to solve a problem when we are upset, as doing so can often have negative consequences. That is, when we do try to solve problems when we are very upset, we can hurt our relationships or ourselves by making choices that are not the healthiest in regards to solving our problems (Nezu, Nezu, D’Zurilla, 2013). For example, using drugs or alcohol might provide positive symptom relief in the short-term, but once we are sober we will still have to deal with our problems; furthermore, over the long-term, such ways of coping can lead to addiction, as well as problems in our social lives. Similarly, saying something hurtful to someone we love might get them to leave us alone, but it might end up resulting in them leaving us alone for good, especially if this is our default way of responding to feelings of hurt. While these strategies are effective, they are not necessarily in our best interests and are therefore ultimately ineffective.
Things that can make you more vulnerable to emotional dysregulation
When we are emotionally dysregulated, facts are often misinterpreted and distorted in order to align with our current emotional state (Linehan, 2015). In light of this, it is important to consider other factors that increase our chances of becoming emotionally dysregulated. That is, certain things can make us more vulnerable to emotional dysregulation, including illness, hunger, sleep deprivation, stress, poor nutrition, too many demands, and drugs and alcohol. In Alcoholic's Anonymous, for example, they use the acronym H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) as a way to reflect on one’s internal experience; to remind people that if they are feeling any of those feelings, they are more susceptible to using drugs or alcohol.
Thus, the coping strategies we learn in therapy are aimed at changing this dynamic, namely, instead of being ruled by our emotions—especially the intense ones—we can learn from them by giving ourselves space to experience and observe them. We can then use this information and other strategies to help us get back into the driver’s seat.