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From Distress to Success: How to Deal with Emotional Dysregulation

What does emotional dysregulation look like?

Do you have a tendency to overlook your feelings? Is what you are feeling not a big concern? Do you have difficulties recognizing your emotions when you are upset? Do you not take time to consider your true feelings? Do you consider your feelings unimportant and unreasonable? Are you having difficulties making sense of how you are feeling? Do your emotions confuse you? When upset, are your emotions so overwhelming that you feel it is difficult to control your behaviours? Do you have difficulties concentrating, completing work, or thinking about other things? Do you feel guilty of your feelings? Do you become ashamed, embarrassed, or angry at yourself for the way you feel? Do you believe your feeling will persist over a long period of time? Does it take a long time to feel better? Is it difficult to think of anything that you can do to make yourself feel better? Does wallowing in your feelings seem like the only thing you can do?

If you answered yes to the majority of the questions you may be experiencing difficulties regulating your emotions.

Why is it important to regulate your emotions?

Life can become challenging for someone who is experiencing difficulties regulating their emotions. Emotional dysregulation is considered in terms of emotional instability and poor emotional awareness. Having no control over emotions can be harmful, considering some emotions can cause problems when they are of the wrong kind, materialize in an unsuitable context, are too strong, or remain too long. It can also be difficult to sort out true feelings when experiencing high levels of multiple negative emotions each day. Emotion dysregulation can cause weaknesses in many areas of life: It can strain interpersonal relationships and decrease work performance because of difficulties understanding what one is feeling and how to express these feelings. It can also negatively affect personal achievements, since emotion regulation helps in the development and maintenance of motivation.

There is a significant amount of evidence proclaiming dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) as being helpful with emotion regulation.

Link between Emotional Dysregulation and Mental Illness

Emotion dysregulation does play a significant role in some mental illnesses; such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and eating disorders For example, people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experience emotional dysregulation, particularly towards anger, along with fears of real or imagined abandonment, fluctuations between admiration and devaluation in interpersonal relationships, unstable sense of self or self-image, impulsiveness that can be considered self-damaging (e.g., substance use, spending money, sex, reckless driving), a continuous feelings of emptiness, stress-related paranoia or feeling disconnected from one`s self, as well as self-harm or suicidal behaviours.

DBT can also be used to help with the previously listed mental illnesses, considering the strong influence of emotional dysregulation in the disorders.

Will it last forever?

Although there are a multitude of factors that can influence one having difficulties with emotional regulation, including gender, family history, childhood trauma and history of other mental illness, the one that is most prevalent to university students is age. Difficulty with emotional regulation is more likely to occur in one's 20s, which also happens to be the time of the highest suicide risk. Some people with emotional regulation issues are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The good news is that almost half of people who are diagnosed with BPD will not meet the criteria for diagnosis just two years later. Ten years later, 88 percent of people who were once diagnosed with BPD no longer meet criteria for a diagnosis. Reasons for recovery might include the tendency for impulsivity to lesson as people age and for certain brain structures, related to emotion, alter as people get older.

Important Statistics

*One third of university students report experiencing depression that affected their ability to function in the last year.

*Suicide is a leading cause of death among university students – nearly 20% of university students report seriously considering suicide and over 7% attempting suicide in their lifetime, 6.4% of students report contemplating suicide and 1% attempting in the past year.

*40-50% of severely suicidal students report multiple episodes of suicidal ideation.

*Nonsuicidal self-injury (cutting or other forms of intentional self-injury without conscious suicidal intent) has been found to have a 15.3% lifetime and 6.8% past-year prevalence among university students.

*Approximately 15% of introductory psychology students screen positive for significant BPD features on a personality questionnaire.

*4% of the students mentioned in the last point are deemed to have a probable or definite BPD diagnosis in the general university campus population.

Why Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)?

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is one of the only empirically supported treatments for individuals presenting with issues with emotional regulation and BPD symptoms, which can include depressive thoughts, suicidal ideation, non-suicidal self-injury and much more. In addition, research has shown that it can enhance social functioning and brings about global improvements.

Why does DBT work on university students?

*It's flexible enough to apply to the severe and variety of issues students face across university campuses.

*It focuses on teaching skills that are developmentally relevant to university students.

*The treatment targets of DBT can be altered to address university students' specific needs.

DBT Skill Development: Using Mindfulness to Regulate Emotions

Mindfulness is a concept that involves focusing on the present. This skill includes concentrating on the here-and-now. University life can often be overwhelming and stressful. Students may have to cope with various stressors and challenges, and at times they may become overwrought with distress. Emotional Regulation skills, an aspect of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, provides an insight that students can use in order to deal with stressful situations. By using these skills, students are able to gain awareness of their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. By understanding and achieving mindfulness, students can learn to deal with stressful situations in a helpful manner.

The concept of mindfulness states that there are three states of mind. The first state, Reasonable mind, is the part of your mind that is governed by logic. The second state, Emotion mind, is governed by mood and sensation. The combination of these two states creates what is known as the Wise Mind, which is the final state. Mindfulness is based on the principle that people have a tendency to view things as being either black or white. The mindfulness model urges students to delve into the gray, to take both the aspects of the Reasonable Mind and the Emotion Mind in order to achieve a Wise Mind, and thus have a better understanding of a situation.

Dysregulation Wise Mind

Keeping the above points in mind, students can use the following model in order to gain emotion regulation skills.

  1. Consider the situation: What event occurred that caused you emotional distress?
    1. Example: You got a bad grade on a test, you are feeling overwhelmed with all your schoolwork, you got into a fight with a friend
  2. Identify your thoughts regarding the situation: Are these thoughts helpful to your situation? Are you in a reasonable or emotion mind state?
    1. Example: “I must be stupid because I did badly on the test”; “My friend is so inconsiderate”
  3. Consider your body's automatic responses: These are responses that occur in response to a stressful situation
    1. Example: Increased heart rate, dizziness, nausea, etc.
  4. Consider your behavioural responses: These are outwards signs of distress
    1. Crying, flinching, urge to engage in self-harming behaviour (i.e. drinking, drugs, cutting, etc.)
  5. Identify your specific feelings: Try to identity your emotional state using basic terms
    1. I am feeling:
      1. Sad
      2. Happy
      3. Angry
      4. Scared
  6. Consider the consequences of your actions: What are the possible outcomes?
    1. Negative effects: I feel the urge to cut myself, but I could get seriously injured
    2. Positive effects: I was feeling angry with a friend, but I spoke to them later and cleared things up. Our relationship is now stronger

Using the above stages, students can learn to balance logic with emotions in order to facilitate a more positive outcome. Having awareness of one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviours greatly helps in emotional regulation and in increasing self-control. Through this exercise, we hope that you can learn to deal with stressful situations in a positive and healthy matter.

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