Do Your Emotions Feel Larger Than Life? 7 Signs You Might Have Dysregulation
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Emotional dysregulation is more than just having intense, overwhelming feelings—it's acting out on those emotions in unproductive ways. Here's what you need to know.
We all know people whose emotions are outsized. They laugh harder, cry quicker, and get really upset at things that might not bother others. They’re the people labeled sensitive or even thin-skinned.
And sometimes, they’re people with emotional dysregulation. That is, they lack the ability to control emotional responses to triggers.
But not everybody with strong emotional reactions is emotionally dysregulated, experts say.
The difference between having intense emotions and emotional dysregulation lies in how well you can identify, use, and manage your feelings. Besides, we’re all capable of experiencing emotional dysregulation, and many of us do at times.
“It has to meet certain criteria to qualify as a disorder,” says Moreen Rubin, PsyD, a Los Angeles-based clinical therapist specializing in eating disorders and trauma, as well as relationships.
Emotional dysregulation can cause problems with relationships and the ability to function in daily life.
Here is everything you need to know about emotional dysregulation, from what it is and what the signs are to ways you can treat it and make sure your feelings don’t rule your life.
What is dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is exactly what it sounds like: having a hard time regulating your emotions.
“This means that when people are angry, they can’t self-soothe and bring the anger from a 10 to a six, or that it takes a long time for them to do this,” says Jill P. Weber, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Washington, D.C., and the author of Building Self-Esteem. “It means when they are sad, it takes over every aspect and takes a long time to pull out of.”
And it means that when they’re anxious, people with emotional dysregulation spiral in and out of fearful thought streams.
In short, it is a deficit of coping, so emotions become very intense, and it is hard to make yourself feel better, according to Weber.
When there’s dysregulation, your outsized feelings tend to hijack your thinking brain too, so you make emotionally driven choices that aren’t good for you in the long run, Weber adds.
If someone cuts you off on the highway, for instance, you might erupt in road rage and risk an accident as you speed up to yell at the driver.
It’s not just anger that can be overblown. Even happiness can cause an emotionally dysregulated person to go off the deep end.
“If you need to study for a test but your emotions are so intense, [you might not be able to] focus, and so you’re missing deadlines,” says Kim L. Gratz, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo in Ohio. “Or ‘I feel so much love that in the context of a relationship, I engage in unsafe sexual practices.'”
(Learn why controlling your anger may help you live longer.)
Dysregulation vs. emotional regulation
“It is totally possible to have intense emotions, to react strongly, and be completely regulated,” says Gratz. “The goal is not to get rid of emotions. Emotions are part of who we are as humans. They enrich our lives. They are incredibly helpful.”
Let’s say you tell your boss you can’t possibly meet a deadline and get angry when she tells you to suck it up and work all weekend.
With emotional regulation, you’d take a hard look at your reaction.
“So I acknowledge it and say to myself, ‘I’m experiencing strong anger right now,’ and accept it because it makes perfect sense,” says Gratz.
Instead of screaming or storming out and quitting—unhelpful emotionally dysregulated responses—you become more assertive, she says.
“I use the emotion to explain how this is not OK, to clarify what I need,” Gratz explains. “And even though the emotion is intense, I’m behaving really effectively, and that anger actually helps me because I’m able to realize this thing is not acceptable to me.”
Signs of emotional dysregulation
Therapists look for certain characteristics when trying to determine if a patient has trouble managing their emotions in acceptable or healthy ways, one of the distinguishing features of dysregulation.
The following seven signs point to emotional dysregulation.
Avoidance of unacceptable feelings
When your emotions are so overwhelming and painful, you disconnect from them. This keeps you from figuring out what they are and acting more effectively.
The same is true if you can’t accept your feelings—for instance, you feel bad or ashamed when you get angry or sad, says Gratz. People may indulge in avoidance behavior too.
“People who constantly struggle with emotional dysregulation usually engage in self-defeating efforts to feel better that actually sabotage their relationships and life in general,” says Weber.
Look for warning signs in your relationships, like overreactions when you’re upset.
“If you’re upset with your romantic partner, you may go to drastic lengths to make sure the partner gets just how upset you are—for example, breaking off the relationship, verbally belittling the partner, or throwing things,” she explains.
(See what therapists want you to know about toxic relationships.)
Engaging in unhealthy behaviors
“It can be very scary to be emotionally dysregulated,” says Rubin. People who struggle with their emotions need to find ways to cope with over-the-top feelings. Sometimes that can translate into risky or destructive behaviors, like drinking, doing drugs, or having unsafe sex, or gambling, says Rubin.
You might also engage in self-harm, restrict calories, binge eat, or overeat, she adds.
Unable to resolve conflict
Most people take time to learn how to fight fair in relationships, but emotionally dysregulated people have a tough time problem-solving or resolving arguments in productive ways.
Rubin gives the example of a couple disagreeing over what color to paint their baby’s room. “The person with emotional dysregulation disorder might experience significant anxiety, and distress, and fear of being abandoned, or inadequacy or shame,” Rubin explains.
These overwhelming emotions are like getting stuck in quicksand, making it hard to address the problem and find a solution.
That’s why a discussion about whether Warm Honey or Mellow Yellow is best for the newborn’s walls may escalate into an all-out battle.
Other mental health issues
“There are various mental health disorders where emotional dysregulation is a feature of that disorder,” says Rubin.
Other conditions that may be paired with dysregulation include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Hard-wiring for strong emotions
There may even be a genetic component, according to Gratz.
“Some people have more strong emotions, some people have less strong emotions. It’s just the way they’re born,” she explains. “We do know that having stronger emotions, being more sensitive to cues, and having more intense reactions are a bit harder to regulate.”
But biology isn’t destiny.
“We also know that even if you have a particular genetic predisposition, you’re also born into an environment that might exacerbate that or dampen it,” Gratz notes.
Here’s where nurture takes over nature. We learn how to manage our feelings when we’re kids—at least in ideal situations, experts say. And that’s the job of parents.
When we’re little, they teach us how to label what we’re experiencing (“You feel angry because you can’t have that cookie right now”) and how to problem-solve (“You can have the cookie after dinner”). They also model how to deal with stress and anger.
When you don’t get that type of learning, your emotions feel confusing. You don’t learn how to cope with different types of feelings or stress or sadness, says Rubin. And that can happen even in the most loving of homes.
“It’s not for a lack of love that parents end up emotionally neglecting their children. It’s either they’re emotionally unavailable themselves, or they don’t know how to provide emotional support because they didn’t receive it from their parents,” says Rubin.
Another possible reason: the parents are just too overwhelmed to model emotional regulation for their kids.
“[Maybe] there’s something going on in their own life, like a single mom who works two jobs because she’s financially struggling and who just doesn’t have the capacity to be available for the times when the cookie does break and the kid gets overwhelmed by it,” Rubin says.
Dysregulation can shift over time
Managing emotions takes skills, and maybe you learned a few when you were little or living at home.
“I can be hardwired in a particular way, and if the stressors in my life are low, and if things are stable, then the skills that I learned early on might work beautifully, and everything’s fine,” Gratz notes.
But stressors can throw a wrench in your emotional regulation.
“All of a sudden, you take that person and move them into a new situation where there’s a lot more stress,” she says. “Even though for years everything was great, now it’s like, ‘Oh shoot, there’s a lot more stress here. The skills I was using are not working anymore.'”
This may be what happens with teenagers, with biological changes and social stressors adding new layers of stress, Gratz explains.
“All of a sudden, emotions are feeling more intense, and skills that perhaps worked five years before are not working anymore,” she says. “And so they have to learn new skills.”
(Find out if your teen’s junk food habits are highjacking his brain.)
Dysregulation may fuel other disorders
Emotional dysregulation isn’t a standalone disorder, say experts. Instead, it’s usually the secondary diagnosis or underlying mechanism of something bigger—like anxiety or PTSD.
But it may be driving those disorders, too, says Gratz, whose areas of research include borderline personality disorder (BPD) as well as emotional dysregulation.
“People think it probably explains a number of different disorders, as well as why so many of these disorders co-occur,” she explains.
“It is incredibly rare that somebody just has BPD,” she says. “Usually, they also have depression and an anxiety disorder. Half of them often have post-traumatic stress disorder. They often have many, many things, and it’s because emotional dysregulation explains all of these to some extent.”
Treating emotional dysregulation won’t cure your depression or PTSD, but it may reduce the symptoms even though you’ll need another targeted treatment, says Gratz.
“But for some people, we’ve found when you just treat emotional dysregulation, the rest really does dissipate, and much of what they’ve been struggling with really does get better,” she notes.
Getting professional help
Because emotional regulation is part of a larger diagnosis, it’s better to go to a therapist who can also tackle the primary diagnosis, says Rubin.
“So if you have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder or bipolar, you want to go with a medical professional who specializes in that,” she explains. “And if you have an eating disorder, for example, because you have difficulty with emotional regulation, you want to find an eating disorder specialist.”
That way the therapist can use a therapeutic approach that targets the diagnosis, like using dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) for borderline personality disorder.
Once you find a therapist specializing in what you’re going through, call them and ask them how they treat emotional instability, Rubin says, suggesting you ask questions like:
- What is your approach?
- How do you treat feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, and impulsivity?
- I’m having impaired social relationships, how do you treat that?
“And then you want to listen for very specific sorts of therapeutic approaches, like if they say, ‘I would use DBT for that’ or ‘I would use CBT for that’ or ‘I would do mindfulness,'” she says. “You want to hear what their treatment plan is in order to really decide if that is the right thing for you.”
Treatments that help
Emotional Regulation Therapy (ERT)
“The goal of treatment is to be able to manage emotions, and handling conflict and building the tolerance for uncomfortable feelings,” says Rubin, who adds that it’s especially good for someone who has depression or anxiety.
The first step in ERT is teaching people to identify and label what they’re feeling.
“We also actually teach people how to be accepting of their emotions,” says Gratz.
Therapy might involve countering unhelpful messages we tell ourselves—that we shouldn’t feel a certain way, or that there’s something wrong if we feel a certain way.
“And we give basic education on how emotions are there for a reason,” she says. “We’re not going to be able to get rid of them, so let’s focus on how we can respond in a way that’s helpful.”
A therapist will teach you skills to help you respond more effectively, Gratz explains. You’ll learn how to figure out what information the emotion is providing, for instance, or how to distract yourself because your feelings are getting in the way of accomplishing things.
“Sometimes it’s about [asking yourself] how do I become OK with experiencing really painful emotions that are hard to tolerate because that’s part and parcel of living the life I want to live?” Gratz notes.
Part of this is learning how to observe your thoughts without letting them spiral out of control.
“And then we teach them to talk back to those thoughts,” says Rubin. “So if they have thought ‘I’m worthless and inadequate, and no one wants me,’ we teach them to take a deep breath and say, ‘I realize that I’m feeling scared.'”
ERT will also help you work on communicating with the people in your life and resolving conflict. And in the end, it’s all about handling distress, says Rubin.
“Every day, I’m experiencing a myriad of different emotions,” she says. “And so developing the skill set in order to be able to kind of ride those emotional waves makes us more successful adults, makes us more resilient.”
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Initially, people with borderline personality disorder who were highly suicidal because they were so overwhelmed with their inability to cope with their distressing emotions did DBT, says Rubin.
“So DBT is really effective for people who tend to go from zero to 60, whether that’s rage, suicidal ideation, or whether that’s extreme sadness,” she explains.
It has a good track record, says Weber. “DBT teaches tools that really work to curb emotional intensity and help access your frontal lobes so you can think through how to best handle your emotional distress,” she says.
This is done by teaching people mindfulness meditation, self-soothing skills, distraction, and how to label their emotions.
While DBT was created for people with BPD, it’s helpful for people with depression and eating disorders, especially “if you kind of home in on the part of it that teaches mindfulness and emotional regulation skills,” says Rubin.
Working with a therapist is the way to go
No matter what approach your therapist takes, the goal is to teach you how to act differently and less impulsively, regardless of what your emotions prompt you do, says Gratz.
“A lot of times people think that the idea is when you feel something, you got to mush it down, and that’s the only way it’ll be OK,” she says. “But actually, what we find is that people who are taught ‘how I’m feeling is totally natural and reasonable, and it’s helpful to me’ can have any kind of emotion, and they’re totally OK.”
Or as Rubin tells her clients: “Feelings are kind of like a tunnel, and some feelings are like going through a really long tunnel. Emotional regulation skills are the ability to tolerate the fact that I’m in the tunnel and know and trust that eventually I’ll come out of this tunnel.”
That’s a mantra we can all live by, whether we are overwhelmed by our emotions nearly every day or just occasionally.