How To Untangle Your Dysregulated Emotions

Psychology resident Arela Agako offers advice on how to manage your emotions.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 7, 2022

A new paper published in the academic journal Canadian Psychology attempts to define an important yet elusive concept in clinical psychology: emotion dysregulation. According to the researchers, emotion dysregulation is best understood as the repeated encroachment of unhelpful emotional patterns. The researchers argue that emotion dysregulation lies at the heart of many psychological disorders.

I recently spoke with Arela Agako, a psychology resident at McMaster University in Canada and the lead author of the new research, to discuss these findings in more depth. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of emotion dysregulation and what did you find?

Emotions have been the topic of conversation for thousands and thousands of years by poets, writers, philosophers, and, more recently, by therapists and researchers. They're a core part of being human and can define in part who we are as individuals. Emotions can enhance and add color to our life and simultaneously cause pain and difficulties in our lives. This is a big part of why this topic was fascinating for me and why I decided to learn and focus more on it.

Emotion dysregulation is a construct that only recently has begun to be studied in the context of mental health, despite emotions playing such a big role in our day-to-day life. I was interested in learning what emotion dysregulation really is and how we can practically measure a construct as abstract as emotion dysregulation so we can study it better.

As a field, we have a long way to go in answering those questions. Even though hundreds, if not thousands, of articles have been written that are related to emotion dysregulation, there are no consistent definitions on what constitutes an emotion, let alone defining emotion dysregulation. This also makes it difficult to come up with the best ways to measure it.

However, there is some good news. We can draw some conclusions from the overlap between all the different theories out there that try to define emotions and emotion dysregulation. We know that emotions have different components. When an emotion arises, there are changes in different areas such as brain activation, physiology, thoughts, behaviors, and there is also the experiential side of the emotion.

For example, in the case of fear, our amygdala gets activated (brain activation), we notice a lot of changes in our body such as heart rate increasing (physiology), we might notice thoughts related to danger (cognition), we might have an urge to run away (behavior), and we also might have different ways of describing this experience (experiential). These changes may look different when other emotions are activated.

By finding ways to measure these different components of emotion (through self-report, physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and brain activity measures) we may better understand what emotion dysregulation looks like for a specific person. However, first, we need more research to understand whether the current measures actually measure what they claim to measure because the research findings are really mixed.

Can you give a general overview of what emotion dysregulation is?

Emotions typically arise to help motivate our behavior and they serve a purpose and have an evolutionary function. For example, when fear arises, it lets us know that we are in danger and we need to either get out of the situation or fight the danger. When sadness arises it lets us know we have lost someone or something that is important to us, we need to seek support or connection. When guilt comes up, it lets us know that we have acted against our values and we need to make amends.

Emotion dysregulation may present itself in many ways: an emotion is activated when it is not helpful or needed; an emotion isn't activated when it is needed; the intensity of the emotion is either too high or too low than what is helpful in the moment; the emotion lasts longer or shorter than we need it to; and/or we don't have strategies on how to change that emotion so it is more helpful in the moment. This happens to everyone because our brains and bodies aren't perfect.

However, emotion dysregulation starts to be a problem and we may need to seek help when it is happening frequently enough that causes distress and/or difficulties in taking care of day-to-day responsibilities.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • We can feel fear before a presentation at work even though there is no physical danger in the environment. Any perceived danger might be because of thoughts we might be having related to fearing we will perform poorly. If we run away from it (or fight our boss for making us do it) because we don't have any strategies about how to manage the fear, that isn't helpful because it might impact our performance at work.
  • Or, in the case of sadness, let's say in the past people haven't provided the support that we need, so we learn to hide the sadness and not express it. That may lead us to struggle with managing sadness because we don't lean towards others for support or provide ourselves with the compassion we may need in the moment, and the emotion may be prolonged as a result.

If these situations are only happening a handful of times, then it usually doesn't cause us too many problems. However, if we have trouble with managing fear because it's too intense and constantly avoid situations or get stuck in sadness for days or weeks at a time, then we may need to seek some help so we can learn more strategies about managing emotions in a more helpful way.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to improve the way they manage their emotions?

This paper specifically addresses how we can measure emotion dysregulation so we can improve how we conduct research on it and doesn't touch on practical ways for managing emotions. Before we can research emotion dysregulation further, it is important that we are using the right tools to capture it and that is what the paper primarily focuses on.

However, we do know from other research in treatments such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Emotion-Focused Therapy, there are a few strategies that have been found to be helpful in managing emotions. Emotions demand attention! Knowing this, here are some steps that can help someone when they are experiencing a difficult emotion and they are having a hard time getting out of it:

  • Find or make time for the emotion, ideally in a comfortable space and during a time when you can dedicate a few minutes to it without interruption
  • Notice what the emotion feels like in your body. Do you notice any changes in your heart rate? Breathing? What do you feel in your face, head, throat? What do you feel in your arms, legs, chest? Do you feel any tingling or tension anywhere in your body?
  • Try to name the emotion. Is it sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust?
  • Is the emotion justified by the situation? Is there actually danger in the environment? Did you really act against your values and need to make amends?
  • If the emotion isn't justified, then ask yourself: "Is there another way I can think of this situation?" "What would I say to a friend who is in the same situation?"
  • If the emotion is justified or makes sense in that situation, then what is that emotion telling you that you need in that moment? Is it connecting with others or seeking support? Is it figuring out a way to get yourself out of a dangerous situation? Is it that you need to apologize to someone? Is it practicing self-compassion or doing something soothing or distracting?

If you are having urges to engage in behaviors that wouldn't be helpful in the moment or are not in line with your values then doing something distracting, practicing self-compassion, or doing something soothing might help in the moment

If you are still having a hard time with the emotion or resisting engaging in unhelpful behaviors after these steps, then seeking mental health care, therapy, or contacting a local crisis line will be crucial.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view emotion dysregulation as a central feature of clinical psychological science?

Absolutely. There are multiple theories that view emotion dysregulation as a central feature across different mental health disorders and claim that most mental health disorders can be conceptualized through an emotion dysregulation lens.

For example, anxiety disorders can be conceptualized as heightened emotional response to perceived threats and an inability to downregulate the emotion; depression can be conceptualized as heightened activation of emotions such as sadness and lowered activation of other emotions such as happiness or excitement; borderline personality disorder is conceptualized as a heightened emotional reactivity towards multiple emotions and a lack of strategies for managing those emotions.

I believe it is hard to continue researching treatments for different mental health disorders without considering how to also incorporate targeting emotion dysregulation in those treatments. This has already started to change recently with most psychological treatments integrating strategies such as mindfulness, self-compassion, and education on emotions and emotion regulation strategies as part of their treatment protocols. We are also seeing mental health programs implementing emotion regulation skills groups as part of what they offer. I believe we will see a lot more of this in the future.

Where would you like to see research on emotion regulation go in the future?

Before we can study emotion regulation, the first thing we need to do is come up with a unified definition of emotion dysregulation so we can make sure everyone is researching and studying the same construct.

Second, we need more research on how to bring measures of emotion dysregulation that we are currently using in research (e.g., neuroimaging, physiology, cognition etc.) into the clinical realm. We currently rely primarily on clinical judgment when it comes to assessing emotion dysregulation which requires extensive training and there is variability across clinicians. These measures may make assessing emotion dysregulation more efficient, eventually may be more cost-effective, and provide a more accurate assessment. If we approached assessing emotion dysregulation in the same objective way that we assess for other health conditions (e.g., through blood tests, physiological monitors, neuroimaging) we may be able to identify it earlier and provide more individualized care. However, we have a long way before this becomes possible.

Lastly, I believe that if we start providing children with education around emotions and teaching emotion regulation skills in schools in the same way we teach them math and science then we can help prevent the development of multiple mental health conditions (and even physical health conditions for that matter) later on in life. This too, of course, will need further research.