What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 19, 2023
4 min read

Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe an emotional response that is poorly regulated and does not fall within the traditionally accepted range of emotional reaction. It may also be referred to as marked fluctuation of mood, mood swings, or labile mood.

When someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation, they may have angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and other self-damaging behaviors. Over time, this condition may interfere with your quality of life, social interactions, and relationships at home, work, or school.

Signs of emotional dysregulation include:

  • Severe depression
  • Anxiety
  • High levels of shame and anger
  • Self-harm
  • Excessive substance use
  • High-risk sexual behaviors
  • Extreme perfectionism
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Eating disorder
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

There are a few different reasons why someone may develop emotional dysregulation:

Early childhood trauma. These are traumatic events experienced during the early years of a person's life. This is deemed the most critical developmental period in human life.

Child neglect. A form of abuse from caregivers that results in a deprivation of a child’s basic needs, including the failure to provide adequate supervision, health care, clothing, or housing as well as other physical, emotional, social, educational, and safety needs. 

Traumatic brain injury. A brain dysfunction caused by an outside force, usually a violent blow to the head.

Chronic low levels of invalidation. This occurs when a person's thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged.

Experts suspect that when you experience emotional dysregulation, there is a reduction in certain neurotransmitters' ability to function as "emotional brakes,'' causing you to remain in a prolonged “fight or flight” response. When this happens, the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation — is essentially turned off during times of heightened stress.

PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening traumatic event. It’s often characterized by severe emotional dysregulation. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, uncontrollable negative thoughts, dissociation, and emotional numbing.

Borderline personality disorder. This is a mental health disorder that affects the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems with functioning in everyday life. It includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships.

People with a borderline personality disorder often experience emotional dysregulation and have greater emotional sensitivity, emotional reactivity, and difficulty returning to a baseline emotional level that feels stable.   

Frontal lobe disorders. When the brain's frontal lobes are damaged — usually due to injury — it can cause emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, lack of impulse control, attention deficit disorder, impaired decision-making, and lack of motivation.   

Typically frontal lobe disorders result from explosive violence, often experienced during combat in war zones. However, it can also be experienced by people who have a brain infection, cancer, stroke, or a neurodegenerative disease.    

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that causes repeated unwanted thoughts, obsessions, or the urge to do something over and over again. This disruption of the thinking (prefrontal) part of the brain can cause significant emotional dysregulation.

Treatment for emotional dysregulation may include one or more of the following: 

Counseling. Typically this will include cognitive-behavioral therapy that combines strategies like mindfulness, acceptance, and emotional regulation.

Antidepressant medications. There are several antidepressants available that work in slightly different ways with various side effects. When prescribing an antidepressant, your doctor can help you find one that works well for you.

Diet and exercise. Coupling counseling and medication with a healthy diet and exercise can be beneficial. This can help you ensure you get enough vitamins and nutrients so you can support your physical health while supporting a healthy mood and self-care routines.

Emotional regulation. To achieve better emotional regulation, a mental health professional can help you reduce extreme reactions to emotional stimulants by teaching you better control and expression of your feelings. This is usually done through a combination of skill-building and interventions that are especially helpful in developing more consistent emotional stability.

Underlying conditions. Sometimes emotional dysregulation is brought on by an underlying physical illness. Your doctor can help diagnose and treat any underlying medical conditions that may be causing mood-altering behavior.

New Psychological Tools. A professional mental health care provider can help you learn and practice practical psychological tools that can promote positive self-esteem so you can experience a greater sense of control over your emotions. This could include things like taking a new course, completing school, or getting meaningful on-the-job training.

All of these skills and tools can be learned and mastered at any age, most effectively with the help of a skilled counselor who can act as a guide and coach during this process.   

You're not alone. If you're concerned that you may have a mood disorder, make an appointment to see your doctor or a mental health professional as soon as you can.