Have you been noticing intense and frequent mood swings? Are you beginning to act on impulse and getting into dangerous or risky situations before thinking things through? Have you been engaging in self-harm to deal with your emotions? Or, have you been aggressive towards others because you constantly feel angry or on edge? Are relationships with friends or parents tough for you?
If you have been having this experience- you are not alone. And, having this experience does not make you a ‘bad’ or ‘worthless’ person. Please know that there are ways that things can get better- it will require you to use willingness, mindfulness, and skillfulness …
In this blog, emotion dysregulation (overwhelming emotions) will be discussed, as well as how the environment affects our ability to be skillful in the present moment, and what could be helpful in managing overwhelming emotions and out of control behaviors.
What does emotional dysregulation (overwhelming emotion) mean?
Emotional dysregulation or overwhelming emotion, is connected to both biological (a living thing) and environmental (their surroundings) factors. We all have an emotional regulation system (ERS) – the part of our brain that is in charge of how we view, experience, and respond to situations. People with highly sensitive ERS are more likely to experience an intense reaction to those situations that spark emotions. Because of high emotional sensitivity and intense reactions to emotional events, it tends to take the person a longer amount of time to feel better and more relaxed (i.e., slow return to baseline.)
The average person experiences over a dozen or two situations (‘bumps’) that create an emotional reaction, per day. Since we are likely to experience several situations that bring about various emotional reactions, if one is naturally sensitive and feels their emotions stronger/reacts intensely to events, it makes sense that the slightest ‘emotional touch’ can cause the person with overwhelming emotions to react as strongly as they do.
What is an incompatible (invalidating) environment?
An incompatible environment can occur in any space where a person or a group of people rejects someone’s private experience- especially the emotional ones, by treating it as if it does not make sense or is not the ‘right’ way to feel.
For teens, this person or group tends to be their parent/caregiver, friends, teachers, healthcare professionals, and so on. For adults, this person or group tends to be their parent, friend, boss, significant other, and so on. The response from the environment can range from, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine- it’s not that big of a deal,’ to ‘you just need to get control over your feelings and get over it!’
This sort of transaction leads the person with overwhelming emotions to feel ‘invalidated,’ increasing their experience of feeling misunderstood, which heightens the likelihood of engaging in out of control and risky behaviors. As emotions get more intense, the urge to do something about the emotion is greater.
At times, the person can respond angrily (verbally and/or physically), engage in risky sexual behaviors, disordered eating, drug use/binge drinking, also the person may engage in non-suicidal, self-injurious behaviors (NSIB), as well as other harmful things (Rathus & Miller, 2015) to ‘regulate’ or manage their emotions.
What can help?
Marsha Linehan, Ph.D created a therapeutic framework- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for adults in the 90s, and it has since been modified to help teenagers who experience overwhelming emotions and who engaging in ineffective behaviors.
DBT is an evidenced-based approach that is helpful with adults and teenagers who are experiencing some degree of emotion dysregulation, relationship difficulties, and experimentation with risky behaviors. The approach is also helpful to those who experience severe emotional and behavioral concerns and are at-risk for long-standing psychiatric disorders. DBT is a tool that will help the person actively treat/manage the symptoms related to their emotions, while improving the individual’s mood and behavior across environments.
Part and parcel to practicing dialectics is to consider that more than one thing can be true at the same time. For example, the person with overwhelming emotions are doing the best they can AND, they have to try harder, do better and be more motivated to change.
The approach supports the acceptance of the individual in the present moment and encourages change toward being skillful with use of different behavioral strategies.
DBT teaches the person with overwhelming emotions how regulate or manage their emotions skillfully, how to do what works in relationships, how to tolerate distress, how to be mindful to the present moment, and how to practice ‘both-and’ thinking by walking the middle path.
If you or someone you know would like to receive additional information about DBT, overwhelming emotions or any information related to mental and emotional well-being, please call me at 702.980.5036 for a free fifteen-minute consultation.