Emotional dysregulation (ED), also called ‘emotional hyperactivity’, means that Individuals often feel intense emotions for longer periods due to skill deficits in regulating emotions or zone of regulation.

When we are feeling calm and ‘normal’ this is our window of tolerance for things.

Emotional dysregulation symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • High levels of shame and anger
  • Self-harm
  • Excessive substance use
  • High-risk sexual behaviors
  • Extreme perfectionism
  • Highly conflictual interpersonal relationships
  • Disordered eating
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Severe cases may be mistaken for rapid-cycling bipolar disorder due to extreme mood changes.

What causes emotional dysregulation?

Some causes can be early childhood trauma, child neglect, and brain injury. Individuals can have biological predispositions for emotional reactivity that can be exacerbated by chronic low levels of invalidation in their environments resulting in emotional dysregulation.

Who suffers with it?

Emotional dysregulation can easily be missed as a concern in individuals diagnosed with, ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders. 

Women are more than likely to have emotional dysregulation than males due to more intense experience of emotions, rumination, and more frequent environmental invalidation.

How does emotional dysregulation feel?

Because you are more emotionally responsive than an average person. Your emotions will be triggered more quickly, and will tend to be on a bigger scale. You also have more difficulty controlling your emotions than others do. You might often feel taken over and lost in your emotional states. 

Emotional dysregulation can manifest as

Angry outbursts ( you can go from fine to rage in a few seconds)

Bursting into tears often

Focusing mainly on the negative

Becoming overly excited

Having a low tolerance for frustrating situations

Being unaware of the feelings of other people

‘freaking out’ and being called ‘dramatic’

Accusing/blaming people of things before you have facts

Smashing or breaking things when you are upset

Crying in response to a variety of feelings, even happiness

Struggling to take your focus away from your emotions

Lashing out at others before you can stop yourself

Feeling abandoned by others all the time

Others always saying you overreact

Feeling misunderstood by those around you

Moods swinging rapidly in ways other people find confusing

Skills to help Regulate Emotions

Learning emotion regulation skills will help us learn to effectively manage and change the way we feel and cope with situations.

1. Don’t Avoid the Emotion

2. Name the emotion

Naming the emotion often leads to the emotion losing its power. It can allow us to let go of some of the pain and discomfort that accompany the unpleasant emotion.

Rather than avoiding unpleasant emotions, acknowledge their presence and name them specifically. It can be helpful to say out loud or think to yourself, ‘I am feeling sad/angry/afraid.

If you are uncertain about what emotion you are feeling, you can use a ‘Feelings Wheel,’ which displays many of the primary and secondary emotions one may feel. 

feelings-wheel-1024x1024 Emotional dysregulation

3. Recognise and understand the emotion

It makes sense to believe that people who are unclear about their emotions are also less aware and less clear about their psychological needs. 

Ask yourself some questions:

  • What particular ideas or thought patterns are causing a reaction in your mind?
  • Which emotions do you find most difficult to endure or handle?
  • What methods or actions do you take to ease your anxiety?
  • To what extent do these techniques provide relief in both immediate and long-term situations?
  • Are there any fundamental convictions you hold about yourself, others, or the world that have a bearing on the negative spiral?

4. Try and place where in the body you feel uncomfortable

Cognitive-dissonance-4 Emotional dysregulation

A way in which you can become more aware of what you are feeling is to pay attention to what you are experiencing physiologically in your body.

For instance, you may have an unsettled feeling in your stomach when feeling anxious, or you may feel a tightness in your chest if you are feeling sad. 

4. Validate the emotion

It is key to recognise that your emotions are present for a valid reason and that they are telling you something. 

Practice self-compassion and give yourself support for the unpleasant emotions you are experiencing. Understand that feeling strong negative emotions are a normal part of life. 

Try to breathe into the experience of your emotions. You can soothe hurt feelings by placing a hand over your body where you feel this experience, then breathe slowly into this area. 

Inquire within as to whether there may be something you can do to address this feeling without any expectation that something needs to be done. 

5. Identify and resolve emotional triggers

Often, we may have an interpretation of a situation that can trigger a strong emotional reaction. To help with regulating our emotions, it is key to learn to recognise emotional triggers.

By identifying triggers, you can address the underlying issue and change your emotional response.

Remember that you always have a choice on how to respond and what to do with the information you have. 

5. Chair work dialogues

Cognitive-dissonance-3 Emotional dysregulation

Another technique that can aid emotion regulation is chair work dialogues (Greenberg, 2021). This involves imagining a conversation between different parts of yourself.

For example, you can externalize an internal critical voice by giving it a chair. Notice when this part attacks vulnerable emotions, making you feel flawed. Dialogue with the critic, expressing the pain it causes. Work to uncover the unmet needs or shame driving its harshness.

Chair work also allows compassionately soothing distressed parts of yourself. Comfort a scared inner child and provide the safety it lacked. Or encourage an angry part to express its frustration adaptively.

6. Use imagery to transform emotions

Imagery is another effective strategy for modulating emotions (Greenberg, 2021). Visualisation accesses right-brain processes, evoking feelings rapidly.

Imagine revisiting a scene where you felt overwhelmed, like childhood mistreatment or rejection. See yourself as a vulnerable child in this situation. What emotions arise? Fear, loneliness, shame? Stay with these painful feelings briefly.

Now visualise your current self entering the scene, ready to intervene. Offer the child protection and meet their unmet needs. Provide the safety and comfort they lacked. Dialogue with the child to understand their distress.

This imaginal process transforms difficult memories by accessing core hurts then symbolically resolving them. New empathy and care emerge, encoded as healthy emotional responses. Old triggers lose their power.

With practice, vividly revisiting scenes activates self-compassion automatically. Past wounds heal, and present emotions become more regulated this is known as emotional intelligence.