Do you become overwhelmed by intense emotions that erupt suddenly and for no “good” reason? Emotional dysregulation can make daily life harder than it needs to be. These tips can help.
We all experience inconvenient situations as part of our daily experience. We might struggle to get our kids ready for school on time, get cut-off by another car in traffic, or receive a curt response from our boss. For some, these challenges roll off pretty easily. For other people, minor issues fuel outsized reactions like yelling, crying or shutting down.
If relatively small things tend to flood you with intense emotions, you may struggle with emotional dysregulation. Read on to learn more about it—what it means, why it happens and what you can do about it.
What is emotional dysregulation?
If you struggle with emotional dysregulation, it’s difficult for you to manage how you feel and what you do in response to situations that are meaningful to you. You feel emotions intensely and out of proportion to the significance of the situation that triggered them. You also have trouble shifting focus away from your distress.
For example, if your partner says something mildly critical about you, you might fly into a rage or become flooded with despair. In those moments, you start mentally packing your bags or preparing for the worst.
Riding this emotional rollercoaster can feel exhausting and painful. After you’ve calmed down, you might feel shame for saying or doing things that you regret. People around you might feel baffled by your behavior and scold you to calm down or grow up. As if it were that easy!
What people often misunderstand is that emotional dysregulation is not a choice you’ve made. Rather, it’s likely a consequence of differences in the way specific parts of your brain (including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex) communicate with one another1. While you can’t control the way your brain operates, you can take steps to improve your ability to manage your emotions. This often starts with addressing any underlying mental health conditions that may contribute to your emotional reactivity.
What causes emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is a common feature of many mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, trauma-related disorders, depression, and anxiety disorders such as OCD1. It is also common in people who have neurodivergent conditions like ADHD1 and ASD2.
Experts suggest that our ability to regulate emotions relies upon communication between certain parts of the brain. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex exerts cognitive control over the amygdala, a structure that is central to processing emotion and guiding our focus. It’s no surprise that variations in this network are fundamental to the disordered physiological processes that underlie ADHD, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, which are all characterized by emotional dysregulation3.
Trauma, including abuse and neglect, is a significant risk factor for emotional dysregulation4. People who develop emotional dysregulation may have a biological predisposition for emotional reactivity that’s exacerbated by traumatic experiences.
Symptoms of emotional dysregulation
Emotional dysregulation may look different from one person to the next. Some people become easily upset and cry, yell or lash out physically. Others withdraw emotionally and feel numb or listless. Here are some of the common symptoms of emotional dysregulation:
- Feeling strong emotions out of proportion to what triggered them
- Feeling easily overwhelmed
- Acting impulsively
- Having trouble dealing with stress
- Often losing one’s temper
- Becoming easily frustrated
- Being easily excitable
- Having trouble calming down
- Difficulty shifting focus away from your emotions or the trigger that incited them
How to improve your emotional regulation
If you have an underlying condition like ADHD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder, it’s important to seek treatment from a licensed mental health professional to address those issues. Medication, therapy or a combination of the two may improve these conditions and your ability to regulate your emotions.
Treatment for emotional dysregulation
Therapy for emotional dysregulation typically involves DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). Originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT teaches you skills to regulate your emotions. Through DBT, you learn to focus on the present moment and become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You also learn techniques for dealing with stressful situations.
It may not be possible to stop feeling strong emotions. However, you can learn strategies to help manage them. When you start to feel a strong emotion that seems out of control, try to get into the habit of practicing coping techniques to calm yourself down.
Coping strategies for emotional dysregulation
Take a break. Go for a walk, go outside, go to the bathroom, run up and down the stairs, get a glass of water—give yourself a few minutes to calm down. If you’re with someone else, tell them you need a minute to yourself.
Label what you’re feeling. Name your emotions. You can talk them through aloud or write them down. Journaling gives you a chance to express yourself without saying damaging things to the other person before you’ve had a chance to think through what you actually want to say to them. In addition, writing down your feelings can help you make sense of them and work through them more quickly.
Work it out. Turn on a favorite song and dance vigorously, run in place or engage in some other form of physical activity. Both listening to music and engaging in exercise can boost your mood and reduce levels of stress hormones.
Trigger your dive reflex. Have you ever heard of the mammalian dive reflex? It’s a series of physiological responses that happen when you hold your breath under cold water. Triggering this reflex is an effective way to calm down fast. Learn more about it here.
List self-soothing techniques. In some situations, it’s simply not possible to take a break or stick your head in a bowl of ice water. Come up with a list of things you can do when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed but can’t step away from the situation. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Repeat a soothing mantra in your mind
- Count backwards by 3s
- Trace out a message on your palm
- Focus on your breathing. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds
- Practice a progressive muscle relaxation (just don’t clench your fists too close to the person you’re upset with!)
How to get treatment for emotional dysregulation
A licensed therapist can help you learn skills to regulate your emotions and manage stressful situations. To find a therapist, you can ask your primary doctor for referrals or search online. When contacting resources, ask about the specific services they offer, the professionals involved, and whether they accept insurance. It’s important to find licensed professionals with experience treating emotional dysregulation.
If you or someone you love would benefit from talking to a mental health provider in Tennessee, call or text:
One of our Care Coordinators will help you get the care you need.
Emotional Dysregulation Quiz
- Koş Yalvaç, E.B. & Gaynor, K. Emotional dysregulation in adults: The influence of rumination and negative secondary appraisals of emotion. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2021; 282: 656-661.
- Dell’Osso L., Massoni L., Battaglini S. et al. Emotional dysregulation as a part of the autism spectrum continuum: a literature review from late childhood to adulthood. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2023 Sep 18;14:1234518.
- Kebets, V., Favre, P., Houenou, J. et al. Fronto-limbic neural variability as a transdiagnostic correlate of emotion dysregulation. Transl Psychiatry 2021;11: 545.
- Dunn, E.C., Nishimi, K., Gomez, S.H., Powers, A. & Bradley, B. Developmental timing of trauma exposure and emotion dysregulation in adulthood: Are there sensitive periods when trauma is most harmful? Journal of Affective Disorders. 2018; 227: 869-877.
- Vogel, A.C., Tillman, R., El-Sayed, N.M., et al. Trajectory of emotion dysregulation in positive and negative affect across childhood predicts adolescent emotion dysregulation and overall functioning. Dev Psychopathol. 2021 Dec;33(5):1722-1733.
- Bjureberg J, Ljótsson B, Tull MT, Hedman E, Sahlin H, Lundh LG, Bjärehed J, DiLillo D, Messman-Moore T, Gumpert CH & Gratz KL. Development and Validation of a Brief Version of the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale: The DERS-16. J Psychopathol Behav Assess. 2016; 38(2):284-296.
Rachel Swan, MS
Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.