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What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Have you ever had the experience where a fairly minor situation has happened in your life and your response is highly emotional? Maybe your partner leaves their towel or clothes on the floor and instead of feeling sightly irritated you become very angry. In this example the emotion doesn’t just stop at anger, but you spiral down a path that leads you to believe your partner doesn’t respect you anymore and you may need to break up with them. I learned early on in my healing journey that when the emotion was too big for the situation it was probably stirring up something from my past. What I’ve come to realize is this is called emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation is when the emotional is too big for the problem. The situation is fairly harmless, but in your mind it feels big and causes a strong reaction. These big emotions may cause avoidance, where getting away from the situation may feel like the only solution. It may also cause rumination and you continue to think about it long after the situation has passed. Aggression and venting may also occur. Not only are you angry about the situation, but you lash out at the person with accusations and hurtful comments.

Catastrophizing is also a sign of emotional dysregulation. This is when the worst possible outcome feels like it is true for the situation. Another part of catastrophizing is when the problem is exaggerated. The example given above is a form of catastrophizing. The situation is fairly benign, but because of emotional dysregulation it feels like a major event. Because the problem is exaggerated and the worst possible outcome is believed to be true.

In the moment these emotions feel real. This is what causes the emotional exaggeration that leads to dysregulation and why it feels so big. It’s difficult to recognize this in the present moment because it feels so true. But after the emotions have calmed down there are often feelings of shame and guilt over the situation and the harm it may have caused in the relationship.

Strategies that help with emotional dysregulation are things that calm down our central nervous system. These things include: meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and exercising. These are activities that help us work with strong emotions on a somatic or physical level. This is important because when we work with emotional responses in our body then can we work with them in a more rational – cognitive way. When we are able to process the situation in a more rational way we can gain awareness of what is happening and deal with it intellectually. In this awareness we can obtain perspective and understanding about the situation.

Fluctuating emotions are a normal part of life, but when they are exaggerated compared to the problem at hand, real harm can occur to our relationship with ourselves and others. Learning why we have these emotional responses and where they are coming from is important. A therapist may be needed to unpack all of this. Then learning and practicing strategies that work for you to reduce the impact of these emotions is also helpful.

To learn more about how to work with emotional dysregulation see my previous blog on tools for overcoming trauma. Coaching or counselling can also help in working with emotions. If you’d like learning more about coaching go to my website. Working with strong emotions that feel so real in the present moment can be difficult. This is a journey I’ve walked and am still working on. As you work on this be gentle with yourself. Progress may be small, but it is still progress. You are worth it, and you can do it! Take care!

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