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What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Learn about dysregulated emotions and how they can hurt well-being.

Key points

  • Dysregulation is defined as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response.”
  • When someone exhibits more extreme emotion dysregulation, they may be diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
  • Tips to help with emotion regulation include exercise, deep breathing, yoga, and acceptance.
Nutlegal Photographer/Shutterstock
Source: Nutlegal Photographer/Shutterstock

Cowritten by Sarah Sperber and Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.

Do you have a hard time regulating your emotions? Do you wonder what's going on when your emotions feel dysregulated (or out of control)? The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dysregulation as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response” (dictionary.apa.org). In the field of psychology, a commonly studied type of dysregulation is emotion dysregulation, which has been shown to negatively impact well-being.

Different emotions come and go throughout any given day. Experiencing emotions (even negative ones) is not a problem in and of itself. However, if emotions become overwhelming or out of control, they no longer help us and may then actively harm our well-being.

What Is Emotion Dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is a complex collection of processes that are thought to include the following four main aspects (Gratz & Roemer, 2004):

  • A lack of awareness, understanding, and acceptance of emotions
  • A lack of adaptive strategies for regulating emotions (the intensity and/or duration)
  • An unwillingness to experience emotional distress whilst pursuing desired goals
  • An inability to engage in goal-directed behaviors when experiencing distress

Given these four aspects of emotion dysregulation, D’Agostino and colleagues suggest all of the following are examples of emotion dysregulation: “avoidance, rumination, denial, emotion suppression, aggression, and venting” (2017). These are mental and behavioral strategies that ultimately make negative emotions worse.

Emotion Dysregulation Disorders

The extent to which individuals can regulate their emotions exists on a spectrum—no one’s emotions are always regulated or dysregulated. However, when someone exhibits more extreme emotion dysregulation, they may be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Here are some disorders that often involve emotion dysregulation:​ depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

These disorders may involve poor mental emotion regulation strategies (e.g., rumination, avoidance, etc.), but they may also involve dysregulated behaviors (e.g., self-harm, substance abuse, binge eating, etc.). These behaviors are thought to be unhealthy strategies that are used to regulate emotions. So, they are often included in the definition of emotion dysregulation.

Tips for Healthier Emotion Regulation

Even if you don’t have an emotion dysregulation disorder, we can all benefit from learning healthy emotion regulation strategies. Here are a few:

  • Exercise: Different forms of exercise, such as cycling and running, have been shown to help regulate emotion (Bernstein & McNally, 2018).
  • Deep Breathing: When we are anxious, our breathing becomes quicker and shallower. Research has shown that deliberately deepening and slowing the breath can improve mood (Jerath et al., 2015).
  • Yoga: Yoga combines physical movement with mindful awareness.
  • Acceptance: If you’re feeling sad, for example, it can be helpful to remember that sadness is a normal emotion that everyone has. This can help you judge yourself less for the emotions you have.
  • Awareness: ​Cultivating awareness of your inner experience can help you recognize when and why you feel certain ways.

In Sum

It’s normal for our emotions to fluctuate but if you find yourself struggling with frequent strong emotions that you can’t seem to manage, you might be experiencing emotional dysregulation. The good news is that there are effective ways to help regulate your emotions, including the tips discussed here.

Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Nutlegal Photographer/Shutterstock

References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.

Bernstein, E. E., & McNally, R. J. (2018). Exercise as a buffer against difficulties with emotion regulation: A pathway to emotional wellbeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 109, 29-36.

D’Agostino, A., Covanti, S., Monti, M. R., & Starcevic, V. (2017). Reconsidering emotion dysregulation. Psychiatric Quarterly, 88(4), 807-825.

Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the difficulties in emotion regulation scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 41-54.

Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(2), 107-115.

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