Emotional dysregulation is a brain-related symptom that means you have trouble managing your feelings and emotions. It’s often a sign of conditions that affect your brain or differences in how your brain developed or works today. It’s usually not a serious condition except when severe. Many of the causes are treatable.
Emotional dysregulation is a mental health symptom that involves trouble controlling your emotions and how you act on those feelings. To those around you, your emotions and reactions will seem out of proportion compared to what you’re reacting to. It’s similar and closely linked to executive dysfunction.
When you manage or regulate your emotions, you can steer and direct how you feel and react. Most people learn how to do this as children and develop it as they get older. It’s also a key part of being adaptable or resilient to challenges, learning and more.
You can think about emotional regulation like volume control for your feelings. When you use the volume control for a device, you can keep it from being too loud. With emotional dysregulation, your brain can’t regulate emotion signals. In effect, your volume control doesn’t work like it should, making your emotions “louder” and harder to manage.
An example of learned emotional regulation is how children eventually outgrow temper tantrums. During childhood, tantrums are normal and an expected part of your child’s development. As children get older, they generally learn how to manage their emotions. That’s why tantrums become less frequent and eventually stop.
The effects of emotional dysregulation are most visible in what you say and how you act. Some examples of emotional dysregulation include:
When emotional dysregulation is severe, it can cause symptoms that disrupt your life, social relationships, career and more.
Some of the more severe effects can include:
Emotional dysregulation is a symptom of differences or issues with how certain parts of your brain communicate or work together. It can be a symptom of mental health conditions. But it’s also very common in people who are neurodivergent. Many people with emotional dysregulation have more than one condition that causes or contributes to it.
Emotional dysregulation is most likely to happen in three main groups of people:
Emotional dysregulation is a symptom of many mental health conditions. Some examples include:
Emotional dysregulation is possible when you have differences in how your brain developed or how it works now. Some examples of this include:
There’s another form of emotional dysregulation common in people with ADHD. Rejection sensitive dysphoria isn’t a medical condition, but it’s something most people with ADHD experience. It involves feelings of intense pain or other negative emotions when you feel rejected or that you’ve failed at something.
Emotional dysregulation is possible when there’s damage to certain areas of your brain or disruptions in brain activity. Any condition that damages your brain or disrupts how it works can have this effect. Some of the most common conditions include:
Many people who have emotional dysregulation can learn to manage its effects. But treatments can make learning to manage them easier.
Treatments work best for neurodivergent-related health conditions. When emotional dysregulation happens because of brain damage or disrupted brain activity, it’s not treatable directly.
The main forms of treatment are:
Emotional dysregulation isn’t a condition you can self-treat. The conditions and circumstances that cause it need a healthcare provider to diagnose them and guide treatment.
Emotional dysregulation can also happen with damage to or disruptions in brain activity. Some of the conditions that cause emotional dysregulation to happen are dangerous, and a few are medical emergencies that need immediate care.
You can generally adapt to or learn to live with mild emotional dysregulation, and getting treatment can help.
Emotional dysregulation can have major negative effects on your life when it’s moderate to severe. Emotional dysregulation can disrupt many areas of life, including:
In the most severe cases, people with emotional dysregulation may become aggressive or violent because of difficulties controlling their emotions. Some may engage in self-harm or suicidal behaviors. Others may behave recklessly or in a way that puts them at risk for serious injuries or death.
Emotional dysregulation that involves aggressive or violent behavior can also lead to possible legal repercussions. That includes encounters with law enforcement, arrest or criminal charges.
Emotional dysregulation happens unpredictably. Most conditions that cause it are unpreventable. It may be possible to reduce the risk of developing emotional dysregulation from certain conditions that cause brain damage or disrupt brain activity.
Some things you can do to reduce your risk of those conditions include:
When emotional dysregulation affects your life in any way, talking to a healthcare provider is a good idea. It’s especially important to talk to a provider if emotional dysregulation begins to disrupt key parts of your life, including your social relationships, work, etc.
It’s also essential to get medical attention when emotional regulation develops suddenly. That’s because it can be a key indicator of dangerous or even life-threatening conditions.
If a loved one gradually develops emotional dysregulation, it’s important to encourage them to talk to a healthcare provider. Many age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can cause emotional dysregulation that appears gradually. A healthcare provider can diagnose these conditions and offer guidance or treatment recommendations (if possible) to help.
Many people encounter signs of emotional dysregulation in their children. When this is the case, it’s important to remember that emotional regulation isn’t something children develop automatically. It takes time for them to learn and get better at it.
Like all skills, some children learn emotion regulation faster or do it better early on. Others may need more help. When it’s the latter, be patient with your child. Just like it took practice and effort to learn to tie your shoes or ride a bike when you were young, it can be challenging to learn how to regulate emotions. Supporting your child can make it much easier and make a major difference in how emotional dysregulation affects them throughout their lifetime.
Talk to your child’s healthcare provider if you’re concerned that their emotional regulation isn’t developing as it should. They can assess if there’s a cause for concern. They can also offer resources or advice regardless of whether your child has a condition related to their emotional regulation difficulties.
IMPORTANT: Emotional dysregulation can often involve self-harming or suicidal thoughts and behaviors. You should go to the ER or call 911 (or your local emergency services number) if you have thoughts about harming yourself, including thoughts of suicide, or about harming others. If you have thoughts like this, you can call any of the following:
No, ADHD and emotional dysregulation are very different. ADHD is a diagnosable medical condition. Emotional dysregulation is a symptom of many conditions.
However, ADHD and emotional dysregulation have a long history. In years past, receiving an ADHD diagnosis required that you also have emotional dysregulation. While that’s no longer required for an ADHD diagnosis, experts still know it’s a common feature of ADHD. Providers often take emotional dysregulation into account when offering treatment guidance.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Emotional dysregulation can make it feel like you can’t control your emotions. The feelings you experience can feel overwhelming or cause problems in your life. But it’s important to know that emotional dysregulation is a recognized issue with many conditions. It’s also one that’s very treatable. Better still, it’s possible to learn coping strategies and skills that can help you better manage your emotions. That way, you can feel like you have more control over your feelings, rather than feeling it’s the other way around.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/09/2023.
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