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What is Emotional Dysregulation?

by Andrea M. Darcy

Confused by a diagnosis of emotional dsyregulation? It’s a complicated term for a personality trait that means you are more emotional than most.

What is emotional dysregulation?

Think of a singer who can sing many more octaves than the people around her. She can’t stop herself from breaking into song spontaneously when the ‘muse’ hits, and when she sings, she is completely taken by the music. Now replace her singing with emotions, and you are approaching what it feels like to have emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation (ED), also called ‘emotional hyperactivity’, means that you are more emotionally responsive than an average person. Your emotions will be triggered more quickly, and will tend to be on a bigger scale. You also have more difficulty controlling your emotions than others do. Your might often feel taken over and lost in your emotional states. 

Emotional dysregulation can look like:

Of course most articles about emotional dysregulation focus on the ways it makes life hard, so on the ‘negative’ side to things. But if you have emotional dysregulation, you can also be more deeply touched by things like art and music than others, and able to experience profound joy. With time, when you get to know yourself better, you might find that you also have a talent for showing empathy

So if I have emotional dysregulation there is something wrong with me?

It’s important to keep in mind that mental health labels are not ‘diseases’. You can’t see them under a microscope. They are just ways of referring to people who deviate from the norm of the Western society we live in.

For perspective, even in Western society some countries accept big emotions more than others. It is, for example, less frowned on to break into yelling or tears in Italy than it is in America.

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At the same time, emotional dysregulation is a very big deal if it is making your daily life hard.

This can look like:

So instead of focussing on what is ‘wrong’ with you, consider focussing on how you can work with yourself so that your emotional sensitivity does not sabotage the things that are important to you.

Why do I have emotional dysregulation?

[Note that for some people emotional dysregulation is simply medical, caused by a head trauma.]

Like most psychological conditions, there is no exact answer. It varies by the individual, and tends to be a mix of biological and environmental factors.

It does seem that some children are biologically born more likely to have emotional dysregulation. Infants can show signs of dysregulation at several months old, and some then grow up to have behavioural and emotional problems.

But ED can be a result of the way you were parented. For our emotional system to develop in a healthy way, we need to have a caregiver we can trust to love and be there for us no matter what our behaviour . (This is the idea behind what is known as ‘attachment theory‘). Of course we also need that parent to give us freedom as we learn to venture out and try things for ourselves.

If our primary caregiver instead ignores our needs, is unreliable and unpredictable, or is smothering?  Then it disrupts our healthy emotional development. We don’t learn to self regulate well.

Childhood trauma as well as recent trauma can also cause emotional dysregulation. Trauma affects the brain, leaving it less able to manage stress.

Emotional dsyregulation and other disorders

ED is often connected to these mental health disorders :

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) –  this is the disorder most connected to emotional dysregulation. In fact it is sometimes (and more fittingly) called ‘unstable personality disorder’, or even ‘emotional dysregulation disorder’.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)the frustration ADHD causes can lead to outbursts and mood swings. And the impulsive behaviour can cause drama and irritability.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – it leaves sufferers very jumpy and always in the stress response, meaning you are prone to overreact.

And ED tends to come hand-in-hand with several psychological issues: 

 Addictive behavioursthis includes things like smoking, alcoholism, drugs, and overeating. The addiction is used as a coping mechanism to control and numb the big emotions you feel.

Self-harm – this can be used in the same way as addictive behaviours, to ‘numb out’.

Other issues and disorders connected to emotional dysregulation are: 

What do I do if I think I have emotional dysregulation?

It’s important to seek a proper diagnosis over self-diagnosing, which can cause unnecessary stress.

A psychologist or psychiatrist will be able to determine if it is emotional dysregulation or not. If so,  they will discuss with you what treatment is best. This does not always have to involve medication. If you have borderline personality disorder, for example, they will suggest you try a talk therapy designed to help those with BPD.

Harley Therapy connects you with counselling and clinical psychologists and psychiatrists in London who can diagnose emotional dysregulation. Already have a diagnoses, not in London, and need an affordable therapist?  Visit our sister site harleytherapy.com to book therapy delivered online, by phone or in person. 


Andrea M. Darcy mental health expertAndrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert, who has done some training in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD, and advises people on how to plan their therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: ADHD & Autism, Personality Disorders, Theory of Therapy & Training

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