We all experience emotions – it’s part of being human. But for some people, their emotions can feel like a rollercoaster ride, quickly switching from highs to lows. This experience is often referred to as emotional dysregulation or emotional instability. So what exactly does this mean?
Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulty regulating or controlling one’s emotional responses. A person who is emotionally dysregulated may react in an exaggerated or inappropriate way to situations that a more emotionally regulated person could take in stride. Their emotions might spiral out of control, taking over rational thought. Or they may experience rapid mood swings, jumping from extreme highs to extreme lows. This makes it challenging to maintain stable relationships and succeed in work or school.
There are a few key characteristics of emotional dysregulation:
- Intense emotions: Emotions are felt very strongly, even when the provoking situation doesn’t warrant such a reaction. A minor conflict might lead to extreme anger. Small successes could lead to exaggerated joy.
- Difficulty calming down: Once emotions escalate, it takes a long time for the person to settle down and return to a baseline mood. Feelings seem to have a life of their own.
- Emotional reactivity: Emotions readily spark in response to minor triggers. It’s like having an over-sensitive emotional alarm system.
- Impulsiveness: In the grip of strong emotions, the person often acts recklessly or in unhealthy ways without thinking of consequences. This can lead to self-harm, substance abuse, binge behaviors, and damaged relationships.
- Unstable self-image: With emotions constantly fluctuating, one’s sense of self also shifts dramatically. Feelings of self-loathing can alternate with grandiose self-perception.
What causes this dysregulation of emotions? In many cases, trauma or chronic stress early in life can wire the brain to be hyper-reactive to perceived threats. Mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety can also contribute to emotional highs and lows. Personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) have emotional dysregulation as a primary characteristic.
Genetics play a role too. Some people’s brains are simply wired to be more emotionally sensitive. For example, those with a highly reactive amygdala may experience emotions more intensely than others. The prefrontal cortex also impacts regulation abilities – if it’s underactive, it can’t put the brakes on runaway emotions.
Living with emotional dysregulation can be a rollercoaster ride, but it doesn’t have to control your life. The good news is that mood regulation skills can be learned, even if your emotions feel out of whack. Strategies like mindfulness, distress tolerance, and cognitive reappraisal can calm emotional storms. For some, medication may be helpful too, along with professional counseling to build insight.
If you chronically struggle with intense emotions, radical mood swings, and impulse control, don’t suffer alone. Seek support from mental health professionals, support groups, and loved ones. With time and practice, it’s possible to smooth out the ups and downs in favor of steadier emotions. There will always be highs and lows – that’s life. But you can gain the skills to weather these waves and avoid getting lost at sea.