What is 'emotional dysregulation'?
'Emotional dysregulation' is just a phrase to describe a difficulty in managing our emotions, which may interfere with our daily functioning at work and in our private life.
When we are distressed or going through interpersonal turmoil, our threshold for stress in life can reach very low levels. This means that we may have strong emotional reactions when we encounter a difficulty, or when things do not go the way we would like them to. We may become irritable towards our significant others, or our mood may shift abruptly from happy to desperate in a matter of few hours or even minutes.
This can be quite an unsettling state of mind. It is as if what we could handle until recently, suddenly becomes a hardship. Problems that we use to tackle without any effort can become insurmountable. These could be an argument with our partner or family, a deadline, burning a meal, or simply a crowded bus!
All of a sudden, all our resilience goes out of the window and we are left with a strong sense of inadequacy. To make things even more unbearable, people around us may be baffled by our reactions and pass comments that can hurt us even further. Typical comments that we can hear from others are: "Pull yourself together!", or "what’s wrong with you?". This happens in times when we actually need some compassion from others, rather than criticism.
There are at least two ways to look at this:
1) Why do people around you react in this unhelpful way?
As I said before, they may feel confused by your sudden change of mood. They feel unsettled and end up mirroring your strong emotions. They may feel attacked by your irritability and become defensive. After all, how would you react if someone close to you snapped at you out of the blue?
2) Why do your emotions feel so out of control?
The answer, as it often happens when it comes to psychology, is not straightforward. It also depends on how acute the problem is.
If you have been experiencing these problems for as long as you remember, chances are that there is something deeper that you need to address. Perhaps as you grew up, your parents or whoever brought you up, were not a good model for you in regulating emotions. This is not necessarily their fault, as they might have experienced the same lack of guidance in their childhood, and this could go back for several generations up your family tree. If you feel that your emotions are uncontrollable and could put you, people around you, and the quality of your relationships in jeopardy, my recommendation is to seek help from a professional who can offer you the right support and guidance. However, you may find the tips below useful:
- If you have developed these problems only recently, maybe you ‘only’ need to take a breather and look after yourself. You may simply need to dial down the amount of work you need to attend to. This is, of course, easier said than done! Work can be stressful in this fast-paced society. So how about creating lists of priorities/deadlines?
- Are you a perfectionist and want to get everything done on time? This is a tough one. My strong advice is to decide what’s more important: work – or your health, life quality, and relationship with others?
- Another advice is to surround yourself with people that can understand you and have a compassionate nature. They will be able to ground you and help you slow down.
- Last, but not least, be compassionate towards yourself. I suspect that you would not start shouting at your friends if they were struggling with their emotions. If you did so, they would possibly get worse and isolate themselves.
So why are you being hard on yourself? Why are you letting your internal voice berate you constantly?
Cultivate self-compassion on a daily basis and this will allow you to accept your emotions. Once you accept your emotions as they are – just emotions, not you – then you will be able to identify what tipped you off the edge and work on preventing this from happening again.
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About Francesco Bernardi
Dr Francesco Bernardi is a counselling psychologist registered with the HCPC and BPS. He has a background in research in the field of neuropsychology, and extensive experience in working in mental health settings. He works collaboratively with his clients in order to help reach their goals. He has a specialisation in CBT.