Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.
Possible manifestations of emotional dysregulation include angry outbursts or behavior outbursts such as destroying or throwing objects, aggression towards self or others, and threats to kill oneself. These variations usually occur in seconds to minutes or hours. Emotional dysregulation can lead to behavioral problems and can interfere with a person's social interactions and relationships at home, in school, or at place of employment.
Emotional dysregulation can be associated with an experience of early psychological trauma, brain injury, or chronic maltreatment (such as child abuse, child neglect, or institutional neglect/abuse), and associated disorders such as reactive attachment disorder. Emotional dysregulation may present in people with psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. ED is also found among those with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger syndrome. In such cases as borderline personality disorder, hypersensitivity to emotional stimuli causes a slower return to a normal emotional state. This is manifested biologically by deficits in the frontal cortices of the brain.
The word "dysregulation" is a neologism created by combining the prefix "dys-" to "regulation". According to Webster's Dictionary, dys- has various roots. With Latin and Greek roots, it is akin to Old English tō-, te- "apart" and in Sanskrit dus-" bad, difficult."
There are links between child emotional dysregulation and later psychopathology. For instance, ADHD symptoms are associated with problems with emotional regulation, motivation, and arousal. One study found a connection between emotional dysregulation at 5 and 10 months, and parent-reported problems with anger and distress at 18 months. Low levels of emotional regulation behaviors at 5 months were also related to non-compliant behaviors at 30 months. While links have been found between emotional dysregulation and child psychopathology, the mechanisms behind how early emotional dysregulation and later psychopathology are related are not yet clear.
Smoking, self-harm, eating disorders, and addiction have all been associated with emotional dysregulation. Somatoform disorders may be caused by a decreased ability to regulate and experience emotions or an inability to express emotions in a positive way. Individuals who have difficulty regulating emotions are at risk for eating disorders and substance abuse as they use food or substances as a way to regulate their emotions. Emotional dysregulation is also found in people who are at increased risk to develop a mental disorder, in particular an affective disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Research has shown that failures in emotional regulation may be related to the display of acting out, externalizing disorders, or behavior problems. When presented with challenging tasks, children who were found to have defects in emotional regulation (high-risk) spent less time attending to tasks and more time throwing tantrums or fretting than children without emotional regulation problems (low-risk). These high-risk children had difficulty with self-regulation and had difficulty complying with requests from caregivers and were more defiant. Emotional dysregulation has also been associated with childhood social withdrawal. Common signs of emotional dysregulation in early childhood include isolation, throwing things, screaming, lack of eye contact, refusing to speak, rocking, running away, crying, dissociating, high levels of anxiety, or inability to be flexible.
Emotional dysregulation in children can be associated with internalizing behaviors including
- exhibiting emotions too intense for a situation
- difficulty calming down when upset
- difficulty decreasing negative emotions
- being less able to calm themselves
- difficulty understanding emotional experiences
- becoming avoidant or aggressive when dealing with negative emotions
- experiencing more negative emotions
- exhibiting more extreme emotions
- difficulty identifying emotional cues
- difficulty recognizing their own emotions
- focusing on the negative
- difficulty controlling their attention
- being impulsive
- difficulty decreasing their negative emotions
- difficulty calming down when upset
Early experiences with caregivers can lead to differences in emotional regulation. The responsiveness of a caregiver to an infant's signals can help an infant regulate their emotional systems. Caregiver interaction styles that overwhelm a child or that are unpredictable may undermine emotional regulation development. Effective strategies involve working with a child to support developing self-control such as modeling a desired behavior rather than demanding it.
The richness of environment that a child is exposed to helps development of emotional regulation. An environment must provide appropriate levels of freedom and constraint. The environment must allow opportunities for a child to practice self-regulation. An environment with opportunities to practice social skills without over-stimulation or excessive frustration helps a child develop self-regulation skills.
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