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Why is it that some people seem to fly off the handle or retreat into themselves when they face stressful situations?

Then, there are those who seem to work through tough times and aggravating scenarios with grit and grace.

What causes someone to react to their emotions in ways that are not in their best interest?

What is emotional dysregulation?

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Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe the extreme emotional response to some sort of trigger.

When someone is emotionally dysregulated, they might have angry outbursts, be anxious, depressed, withdraw, or even inflict harm on themselves. The response is out of proportion when compared to the trigger.

Emotional dysregulation is typically thought of as something children experience, but it can carry on into adulthood.

What are the causes of emotional dysregulation?

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There is no single cause of emotional dysregulation for everyone who experiences it, but there are two primary causes that are backed by research.

These two factors are related, but distinct:

  • Childhood psychological trauma

  • Environmental factors

Additionally, some people experience emotional dysregulation without any clear causes.

The outcomes of emotional dysregulation

The outcomes of emotional dysregulation vary by person and situation. Some common outcomes of untreated emotional dysregulation in adulthood are:

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  • Ruining relationships by blowing things out of proportion

  • Holding grudges

  • Trouble resolving conflict

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  • Fixating on negative experiences

  • Developing substance abuse issues

  • Developing mental health disorders

  • Non-suicidal self-harm


Which of the following are examples of someone experiencing emotional dysregulation? Select all that apply:

The role of trauma in emotional dysregulation

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Childhood traumas — child maltreatment, and interpersonal violence — are predictors of emotional dysregulation in adults. Two key research findings related to childhood trauma are:

  • People exposed to trauma at any age had higher rates of emotional dysregulation than those not exposed to trauma at all.

  • Those who experienced trauma between the ages of 6-10 had higher rates of emotional dysregulation than people exposed to trauma at different ages.

The role of environment in emotional dysregulation

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Trauma isn't the only cause of emotional dysregulation. Our environment and how we learn to express emotions can have an impact too:

  • Children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching the people around them.

  • If a parent or caregiver lacks the skills to regulate their emotions, the child won't learn how to regulate theirs.

  • Parents can also encourage or dismiss emotional expression. When emotional expression is rejected or punished, it can lead to emotional dysregulation later on.


Which of the following would be an effective way to help a child develop healthy emotional regulation skills? Select all that apply:

Emotional regulation is learned

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Emotional dysregulation is treated with therapy and by learning strategies to manage emotions.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that focuses on building emotional regulation skills. The four major skills it teaches are:

  • Mindfulness — experience emotions without judgment

  • Emotion regulation — understand emotions and feelings

  • Interpersonal effectiveness — interact with people in a healthy way

  • Distress tolerance — how to deal with stressful situations

Medication is also an option for those with underlying mental health conditions.

Take Action

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There is much more to learn about emotional dysregulation and regulation research on adults and children.

Get started with one of the following links:


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