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Emotional Regulation

Emotional reactions are a natural part of being human that we all experience. Emotional self-regulation involves managing emotions and behaviours depending on the situation, including being able to handle difficult emotions, adjust to change, and calm down when upset or frustrated. Difficulty with regulating emotions, or emotional dysregulation, is often thought of as a problem that arises in childhood and resolves itself as a child learns the skills and strategies to regulate their own emotions. Though it is very common in children and adolescents, many individuals grow into adulthood without learning how to self-regulate, for example if these skills were not modelled to them as a child, which can lead to a lifetime of struggles including problems with interpersonal relationships, school performance, and the difficulties with functioning effectively in a job or at work [1].

Difficulties with self-regulation are also common in children with neurodevelopmental issues such as Autistic Spectrum Conditions, Learning Disabilities, and ADHD. When children do not know how to self-regulate their emotions when they feel overwhelmed, it can lead to aggressive behaviour or tantrums at home or in school, which can put a strain on family, teacher, or peer relationships. Some children may turn their negative feelings toward themselves, which causes problems that cannot be seen. The inability to regulate emotions can impact overall mental health and wellbeing as well as relationships and academic engagement and performance.

Typically, emotional dysregulation means an individual has excessively intense emotions in response to a trigger. Therefore, an individual may feel their emotions are out of control; they may have difficulties recognizing their emotions and feel confused, guilty, or stressed about their behaviour [2]. It may also be described as a marked fluctuation of mood, mood swings, or labile mood [3].​

Emotional dysregulation may present as:

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Lack of emotional awareness

  • Angry outbursts or short temper

  • Impulsive or self-damaging behaviours such as self-harm, substance abuse, or high-risk sexual behaviour

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

  • Extreme perfectionism

  • Eating disorders [3]

Emotional dysregulation may occur in adults for a variety of different reasons. Often people who have experienced early childhood trauma or neglect go on to experience difficulty regulating their emotions. Early childhood is deemed the most critical developmental period in human life, wherein children’s basic physical, emotional, educational, and safety needs should be met in order to sustain healthy development. When these needs are not met, or when a traumatic event is experienced by a child, it can cause the brain to remain in a prolonged “fight-or-flight” response. This is thought to be due to a reduction in the functioning ability of certain neurotransmitters, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, the brain area responsible for emotional regulation [3]. Therefore, when an individual with emotional dysregulation becomes triggered during times of heightened stress, they are unable to effectively deal with their overwhelming emotions. This effect can also be caused by traumatic brain injury; a brain dysfunction caused by an outside force such as a blow to the head, or by chronic low levels of invalidation; where an individual’s thoughts and feelings are repeatedly rejected, ignored, or judged.

Although it can be hard for individuals with emotional dysregulation to feel confident in managing their emotional reactions, there is always the opportunity to learn the strategies and skills to do so effectively. Emotional control and regulation involves taking any action that alters the intensity of an emotional experience, which does not involve suppressing or avoiding negative emotions. With emotional regulation skills, we can influence which emotions we have as well as how we express them [4]. This can be done through learning about emotions, understanding the beliefs we have relating to our own emotions, and how this affects the ways in which we process and act on them.

One type of therapy that is particularly effective in learning emotional self-regulation is cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. CBT focuses on understanding the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours and identifying how this relationship affects the way we think, feel, and behave. This can help with identifying unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours that arise in the face of difficult emotions, allowing us to challenge unproductive responses to negative or overwhelming emotions and find alternative ways to cope with them [5]. For example, this process may involve taking the time to observe emotional reactions, what triggers them and why. Developing an understanding of the reasons we feel the way that we do allows us to adapt the way we think about our feelings and behaviours, providing the opportunity to challenge and replace negative patterns with more positive ones. Using skills such as self-reflection and mindfulness, CBT can help us to think practically and realistically about our emotions, in turn improving self-understanding as well as healthy communication with the people around us. An adaptation of CBT is dialectical behaviour therapy, or DBT, which brings in some additional elements to focus specifically on emotional regulation skills. ‘Dialectical’ means trying to understand how two things that seem opposite could both be true. For example, accepting yourself and changing your behaviour might feel contradictory, but DBT teaches that it's possible for you to achieve both these goals together [6].

Another type of therapy that can help with emotional self-regulation is acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. ACT helps us to understand and accept our emotions, both good and bad, and to reconsider how we perceive the way that we feel without trying to change the emotions themselves. The aim of ACT is not to reduce the frequency or intensity of difficult emotions, but to reduce the impact of emotions over behaviour in order to act more effectively, guided by personal values [7]. This also involves mindfulness, noticing and naming emotions from a place of self-compassion, and defusing from unhelpful perceptions such as judgement, rules, or reason-giving. ACT helps us to listen to and learn from our emotions, and to appreciate the nature and purpose of our emotions in how they can teach us about ourselves and what we need. Through this type of therapy, we can reshape the way we perceive challenging emotions through metaphors, for example, “emotions are like the weather, and I am like the sky”. Through developing more flexible ways of thinking, ACT can help us to handle difficult emotions more effectively and in turn improve the ways we feel about ourselves and others, leading to a better quality of life.

If you feel like you or someone you know may need support with emotional dysregulation, our team of experienced professionals at Surrey Therapy Practice are trained in a range of therapies and are happy to help. Many of our team members use an integrative approach to tailor their treatment plans to specific individual needs. Our therapists, counsellors, and psychologists offer treatments both online and in-person in Banstead. If you would like to find out more or to make an enquiry, get in touch with us here.


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