In research, clinical and therapeutic settings, we sometimes use the term Affect Dysregulation. Affect is the clinical term that is used to describe emotions and feelings. Many practitioners also use the term Emotion Dysregulation. Essentially, Affect Dysregulation and Emotion Dysregulation are interchangeable terms in the psychiatric literature.
What is Affect/Emotion Dysregulation?
Emotion Dysregulation may be thought of as the inability to manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger. If you are struggling with emotion regulation, an upsetting situation will bring about strongly felt emotions that are difficult to recover from. The effects of a prolonged negative emotion may be physically, emotionally, and behaviorally intense.
For example, an argument with a friend or family member may cause an over-reaction that significantly impacts your life. You can’t stop thinking about it or you may lose sleep over it. Even though on a rational level you feel it’s time to let it go, you are powerless to control how you feel. You may escalate a conflict to the point it is difficult to repair, or you may indulge in substances to help yourself feel better, thus creating further stress for yourself and others.
Where does it come from?
The evidence linking early childhood interpersonal trauma and emotion dysregulation is robust. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) often result from child maltreatment. Emotion dysregulation has long been recognized as a central symptom of trauma disorders (van Dijke, Ford, van Son, Frank, & van der Hart, 2013).
There is also evidence that trauma (and as a consequence, emotion dysregulation) may be transmitted from parent to child. Research investigating holocaust survivors and Aboriginal populations in Canada demonstrate that the children of surviving parents tend to struggle with symptoms of trauma such as debilitating depression, unexplained grief, and an increased vulnerability to stress (Kirmayer, Tait, & Simpson, 2009; Kellermann, 2001).
Why don’t we all just have effective emotion regulation?
It is important to understand that children are not born with emotion regulation capabilities. An infant is biologically immature and is therefore physically incapable of soothing himself during times of upset. This is why a nurturing relationship with a caregiver is so important to the healthy emotional development of a child. As the child grows, he or she learns emotion regulation skills from parents and other important adults such as teachers or close relatives. For example, the child may be taught helpful ways to think about problems rather than become overwhelmed when facing a challenge.
A child raised in a healthy environment will be taught to ask an adult for help — and then will typically experience assistance. Instead of feeling sad or anxious about a problem, children with healthy caregivers will learn that they can reach out for comfort and receive comfort when experiencing a problem. This is only one example of how a child learns skills to cope with challenging emotions.
In contrast, children raised by parents who are struggling with PTSD or C-PTSD often do not have the opportunity to learn emotion regulation skills. A traumatized parent who is unable to control their own emotions is unlikely to have the ability to help their child. In some cases, the traumatized parent may escalate the child’s distress with angry or fearful reactions to the child’s problems. In these cases, the child does not have the opportunity to learn valuable emotion regulation skills while growing up.
What is emotion dysregulation associated with?
Emotion dysregulation is associated with many psychiatric disorders such as major depression, PTSD and C-PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and substance abuse.
It is common for those suffering with emotion dysregulation to experience difficulty with interpersonal relationships. Extreme emotional reactions and difficulty resolving conflicts, adds stress on personal and professional relationships.
Many individuals suffering from emotion dysregulation may turn to alcohol or drugs to find relief from upset and stress. These behaviors add additional challenges to career and family relationships as well as take a toll on physical health.
Emotion regulation is essential for healthy functioning (Grecucci, Theuninck, Frederickson, & Job, 2015). If you experience emotion dysregulation, you should consider seeking qualified help.
What treatments are available?
Building a strong and supportive therapeutic relationship is helpful for those struggling with emotion dysregulation.
There are cognitive and behavioral interventions that have been shown to be effective in building emotion regulation skills. Cognitive-behavioral techniques focus on using conscious thought and behavior to regulate emotions (Grecucci et al., 2015). In therapy, opportunity is provided to learn the skills needed to regulate your emotions and start you on the path to healing.
Grecucci, A., Theuninck, A., Frederickson, J., & Job, R. (2015). Mechanisms of social emotion regulation: From neuroscience to psychotherapy. Emotion regulation: Processes, cognitive effects and social consequences, 57-84.
Kellermann, N. (2001). transmission of Holocaust trauma. Psychiatry, 64(3), 256-267.
Kirmayer, L.J., Tait, C.L., & Simpson, C. (2009). The mental health of Aboriginal peoples in Canada: Transformation of identity and community. In L.J. Kirmayer & G.G. Valaskakis (Eds.), Healing traditions: The mental health of Aboriginal peoples in Canada (pp. 3-35). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
van Dijke, A., Ford, J. D., van Son, M., Frank, L., & van der Hart, O. (2013). Association of childhood-trauma-by-primary caregiver and affect dysregulation with borderline personality disorder symptoms in adulthood. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(3), 217.