Trauma can have a long-term impact on your ability to regulate your emotions. This is known as emotional dysregulation.

If you have trouble controlling your emotions or are easily overwhelmed, you may wonder if past trauma is to blame.

Traumatic events — such as abuse, neglect, and accidents — affect people differently and can have lasting effects on your physical and emotional health.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 1 in 11 people will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some time.

Another stress-related condition called complex PTSD (CPTSD) can occur after repeated or long-term exposure to trauma — and acute stress disorder can occur in the first month after experiencing a traumatic event.

One of the hallmarks of PTSD, and especially CPTSD, is having trouble controlling your emotions, which is known as emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation, also called affect dysregulation, describes a difficulty with processing or regulating your emotional responses. This can involve experiencing intense sadness, anger, or anxiety that feels hard to control.

The symptoms of emotional dysregulation can include:

  • abrupt mood shifts
  • crying for seemingly no reason
  • being unable to calm down or finding it very difficult to soothe yourself
  • intense or disproportionate emotional reactions that are hard to control
  • feeling easily overwhelmed by your emotions
  • difficulty coping with stress
  • impulsive behavior
  • outbursts of anger
  • substance misuse

Some people with emotional dysregulation may qualify for a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, or both. These mental health conditions often occur alongside PTSD.

Humans are not born with the innate ability to control their emotions. Learning how to regulate emotions appropriately is a major part of a child’s development.

But experiencing trauma during childhood or adolescence can disrupt this process, ultimately impairing your ability to process and regulate your emotions.

Trauma can change the brain in complex ways. The brain doesn’t finish developing until around the age of 25, so trauma can have a significant impact on your emotional development.

For example, a 2014 study showed that young people with a history of trauma showed heightened activity in the amygdala, which is the brain region responsible for processing emotions.

If you experienced trauma in childhood, you may find yourself less able to control your emotions as an adult. You might even feel like you are emotionally stuck at the age of trauma. “Arrested development” is when trauma impairs your ability to develop full emotional maturity.

When this happens, you may use child-like emotional responses to get your needs met as an adult, such as tears, tantrums, and shutting down emotionally — as opposed to communicating your needs through words.

Childhood trauma can lead to CPTSD, which can arise when you experience an ongoing source of trauma that you feels powerless to escape. Situations that could cause complex trauma include:

  • ongoing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • chronic neglect
  • chronically unstable or unreliable caregivers, which can cause parentification trauma
  • medical trauma
  • living in a war zone or otherwise unsafe environment

Trauma exposure at any age can impact emotional regulation, but 2019 research indicates that middle childhood (ages 6 to 10) may be the most sensitive time.

Even as an adult, experiencing trauma can cause emotional dysregulation and emotional regression.

Emotional dysregulation can occur with various mental health conditions other than PTSD and CPTSD. Some of these conditions have also been linked with a history of trauma.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that involves extreme shifts in mood, which can be considered a form of emotional dysregulation.

Depending on the type of bipolar disorder you have, you may experience:

  • Mania: a state of heightened mood, excess energy, and high self-esteem.
  • Hypomania: a state similar to mania but with less extreme symptoms.
  • Depression: a state of low mood, fatigue, and hopelessness.
  • Mixed features: where symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously.
  • Psychosis: some people experience bipolar disorder with psychotic features, which involves a loss of contact with reality, such as delusions or hallucinations.

People with bipolar disorder may also experience executive dysfunction, which can involve reduced impulse control, difficulty with multitasking, and being easily distracted.

Borderline personality disorder

Emotional instability is a hallmark feature of borderline personality disorder (BPD). This condition involves:

  • experiencing unstable and intense emotions
  • unstable relationships
  • unstable self-image
  • frantic efforts to avoid abandonment
  • inappropriate or disproportionate anger

In the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a diagnostic manual developed by the World Health Organization, BPD is known as emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD).

BPD is an often misunderstood and stigmatized condition that is often rooted in childhood trauma.

Though emotional dysfunction is difficult to manage, various therapies can help you move toward healing.

Psychotherapy (talk therapy) involves working with a licensed therapist to understand and process your emotions. A therapist can help you learn coping skills to shift your emotional responses.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be especially effective because it focuses on adjusting distorted thought patterns that cause emotional distress.

Self-care techniques can also be incredibly helpful in dealing with CPTSD and emotional dysregulation. They can give you a sense of control and power over your emotions, which may help you to feel less overwhelmed.

Meditation and journaling can help you create some distance between your emotions and your reactions.

Deep breathing techniques can counteract the shallow breathing that often occurs as a side effect of the body’s fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.

If you live with emotional dysregulation, you may feel overwhelmed and exhausted sometimes. The symptoms aren’t well understood, so trying to get clarity on your situation can be frustrating.

It can help to remember that you’re not alone, your trauma doesn’t define you, and you can learn to have more power over your emotions.

Developing a better understanding of where your emotional challenges come from can help you can find ways to take care of yourself without judgment.