What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Published on November 10th, 2015

Updated on March 12th, 2022

An overview of DBT explains the treatment’s overall goals, target clients and general philosophy. However when we pare down the interventions, the crux of DBT is helping people maintain emotional regulation. So, this begs the question: What exactly is emotional dysregulation? Why is it a problem? And what DBT skills in particular are helpful in addressing it?

Your thoughts and behaviors are linked. Even though some behaviors feel automatic, if we really broke down our cognitive processes, we’d realize there’s not a single action that occurs without a thought. In the same way our personal thoughts and behaviors uniquely shape our identity, so do our emotions. Emotions can be a delightful and important part of the human experience as well as a tragic one. When someone experiences intense emotion it can complicate things, especially if the emotion is related to shame, trauma or other adverse experiences. On the other hand, intense emotion can also “complicate” things for the better. Intense emotions provide greater capacity for interpersonal depth adding to the richness and meaning of our social worlds.

DBT addresses the intense emotions that complicate things in a problematic way. It’s hard to make rational choices when we are full of anxiety, despair, self-hatred or shame, isn’t it? DBT works to take care of this imbalance and bring things back to equilibrium. Remember: feelings are not bad or good– they just are. DBT teaches this same principle with the understanding that sometimes, feelings need to be taken care of or addressed in a new way. You might ask, why do some people struggle to regulate their emotions and others don’t? DBT says that it’s a combination of biological and environmental factors. Genes may influence the way we experience emotion and so does environment. Those who grew up in an emotionally invalidating environment have a harder time regulating emotion.

So, below is an overview of a few DBT skills; tools that help address emotions in a new way:

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One Mindfully In the Moment: Focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking can be a symptom of not knowing your own limits or trying to please and accommodate too many demands. Anticipating future events can also cause a strained emotional response.

Describe, Put Words On: I’ve written about the importance of teaching children feeling language. Research shows that describing feelings disarms them. In other words: saying, writing or describing what you are feeling makes suffering less intense.

Observe, Non Judgmentally: Disruptive and out of control emotions can stem from a skewed sense of what’s going on. Oftentimes, the misperception has to do with old, untreated emotional wounds. For example, if you grew up in a home where any disagreement meant explosive yelling, name-calling and cursing, you might anticipate all disagreements will end the same way. The skill of observation encourages you to look at things as they are instead of how you think they might be or become. A simple example would be: That person has lots of tears streaming down their face and they are hunched over (non-judgmental observation) vs. That person just received horrible news and is so sad! (drawing conclusions)

Your DBT therapist will help you implement these skills on a regular basis- imagine how things might change if you stopped to observe or describe your feelings multiple times in a day. Unregulated emotions can send us to places of emotional extreme and when things are extreme, we are usually miserable. When it’s too hot we are miserable, when it’s too cold we are also miserable. When we have too much to do we are miserable and the same for too little to do. Balance is key in the dialectical world and practicing skills like those mentioned here can help alleviate great suffering.

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