Emotional Dysregulation

When being emotional means much, much more

Do you know someone that often overreacts, “cries wolf” or is significantly more dramatic than they need to be? These traits are often seen in teenagers and typically determined to be a part of navigating adolescence. However, when a person demonstrates these traits long after their teenage years or in a way that is deemed extreme, they may be more than just overly dramatic; they may be suffering from emotional dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation(ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. Basically, an extremely overly emotional reaction.

Possible manifestations include:
Angry outbursts
Throwing objects
Aggression towards self or others
Threats of suicide

Emotional dysregulation can lead to behavior problems and can interfere with social interactions, interpersonal relationships, and school or work.

Emotional dysregulation can stem from an experience with early psychological trauma, brain injury, child abuse or neglect, or disorders such as reactive attachment disorder. ED may also be present in people with related psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also be found among those with autism spectrum disorder. No matter who displays ED, it’s manifested by deficits in the frontal cortex of the brain.

Most typically, emotional dysregulation symptoms are first present in children and look different than symptoms often found in adults. When children with emotional dysregulation disorders are given a task, they usually spend less time completing the task and more time throwing tantrums, being upset, or being defiant. When children experience emotional dysregulation they typically demonstrate either internalizing behaviors or external behaviors. Some of these behaviors include the following symptoms.

Internalizing Behaviors:
Difficulty calming down when upset
Not being able to calm themselves
Experiencing negative emotions more often than others

Externalizing Behaviors:
Exhibiting extreme emotions
Not being able to recognize their own emotions
Being impulsive
Focusing only on negative outcomes of a situation

What can you do:
If you sense that your child is experiencing issues related to emotional dysregulation, there’s no need to worry. Generally, children are resilient and can cope with issues related to ED so they can grow into well-adjusted adults. First, attending to an infant’s emotional needs in a consistent manner can help them learn how to regulate their emotions correctly from the beginning. Once children are older, allowing them to experience a vast array of situations can help them become more resilient and well developed emotionally. Finally, given children time away from over stimulation to practice social skills can assist in building confidence and consistent self-regulations habits.

If your child is still having problems with self-regulation, or you sense that yourself or a loved one is experiencing emotional dysregulation issues as an adult, seeing a professional therapist can help relieve these issues and make regulating your emotions easier and more productive.

Besma (Bess) Benali, Clinical Social Work/Therapist, MSW, RSW, Counselling Ottawa Nepean. I am trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, ACT, and mindfulness. Clients come to me because they are struggling and feel like they are trapped in a darkness that no matter what they have tried (and many have tried therapy before) they can’t pull themselves out. I help my clients understand themselves in ways no one has ever taught them before allowing them to see positive changes.