By Ana Lee Case
I knew someone who said she had big feelings. She said they would wash over her like a wave and she’d feel like she was being swept out to sea. I could relate. I’ve had big feelings too, and I know what it’s like to be dragged away from the shore.
When I studied social work, I learned that this experience is consistent with what’s called emotional dysregulation.
What is Emotion Dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is having trouble managing difficult emotions.
According to researchers, it has a few components:
- emotional sensitivity
- intense and unstable negative feelings
- not using enough helpful coping skills
- using a lot of unhelpful and/or dangerous coping skills
Emotional dysregulation is very common among people who’ve experienced trauma, and it’s also a common component of wide range of mental illnesses associated with trauma, like borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and bipolar disorder.
Some people are able to use their brains and coping skills to regulate feelings, keep the waves from getting too big. But for others, the tides of emotion are more temperamental.
[Image description: Abstracted close up photo of waves, blurred at if it was a long exposure. Tones include shades of green, blue, and navy.]
Forge’s Self-Help manual for transgender survivors uses a different metaphor: “consider a broken thermostat in your apartment or home. When the thermostat is not functioning at full capacity, it is difficult to regulate the temperature inside your home. The inside state is more vulnerable to changes in the weather outside.”
While people with emotional dysregulation are not broken, both of these metaphors describe a sense of being untethered, of being vulnerable to external circumstances that I think captures the experience of dysregulation.
The Gifts of Emotional Dysregulation
It’s not all bad: people with intense emotional dysregulation also experience beautiful things that others don’t, like strong empathy and emotional awareness.
Someone I know said the waves weren’t so bad because at least they could swim. They had gotten to know their patterns and learned to navigate them skillfully, like a long-distance swimmer, moving unperturbed through choppy waters. They can probably swim better, navigate intensity more skillfully, than more emotionally regulated folks.
[Image description: A light-skinned swimmer, with their head out of the water, in choppy dark waters. There is splash around their body. Their mouth is slightly open. They are wearing goggles with a multicolor band and a navy blue swim cap.]
I imagine them gliding through the waves in a rain storm and I feel in awe of their tenacity.
Another friend told me that her ability to feel things so deeply and fully is her superpower, a gift she will hone and wield more intentionally over time, like a superhero coming into her power.
What is the link between emotional dysregulation and trauma?
As described in the Self-Help Guide, there are a number of theories about the connection between emotional dysregulation and childhood trauma:
- When the brain is so focused on just trying to survive and stay safe, it doesn’t have capacity to develop emotional regulation.
- The abuser likely doesn’t have emotional regulation skills themself, so they are a model for emotion dysregulation.
- According to attachment theory, how the primary caregiver(s) interact with the infant and young child sets lifelong patterns of relating in that child and physically molds how the child’s brain develops. This theory says that even if a parent or caregiver is not an abuser, if they do not respond adequately to the infant/ child’s needs, that child will develop an unhealthy “attachment style” as well as a brain that is unskilled at handling strong emotions and bouncing back from adversity.
Emotional Regulation and The Brain
One theory I’ve been fascinated with is the idea that emotional regulation/ dysregulation is related to the Default Mode Network. The Default Mode Network is the part of the brain that’s activated when the brain isn’t thinking about anything in particular, when it’s just daydreaming or reflecting.
Scientists believe that this “default mode” has a role similar to dreaming: it integrates memories, ideas, and emotions, processes them and files them away so they can be accessed later in healthy ways. Folks with a wide range of mental illness have abnormalities in their default mode networks. So, the theory goes, when people cannot fully process emotional experiences, they can’t regulate their emotions.
What can be done about emotional dysregulation?
Learning about how emotional dysregulation is built into the architecture of the brain might feel daunting, or lead you to think that someone who is dysregulated will never change their patterns.
But the brain has incredible plasticity. Even the adult brain can transform itself over time like a shoreline being changed by the sea.
[Image description: Image is of a beach at sunset or sunrise. Pink, blue, and golden tones fill the sky and are reflected in the wet sand. In the left of the image, a silhouette of a surfer holding a surfboard is visible standing on a sand bar. A few clusters of rocks are in the foreground of the frame.]
One promising intervention is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT.) Some parts of DBT teach us how to surf and ride out intense emotions, and other parts of DBT are more like standing on the shore.
But the basic idea of DBT is this:
If every time you feel overwhelmingly afraid or sad or angry, you practice a self-care skill that allows you to calm down and feel more centered, then feeling calm in response to intense emotion will eventually become a habit that is powerful enough to alter your brain.
DBT traditionally involves working with a therapist. If you are interested in finding a trans-competent therapist, here are some listings.
Whether you use DBT in therapy or just build the habit of self-care on your own, this work of returning again and again to kindness and self-care is a deep and important practice in building emotional resilience and regulation. It reminds me of an Audre Lorde quote:
“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other.”Audre Lorde
For trans survivors, being tender with ourselves has been stolen from us. And we have to reclaim it through conscious study, in order to soften the force of the waves.