Emotional Dysregulation

emotional dysregulation

When we are emotionally regulated, we feel cool, calm, collected and connected to those around us. We function well in our social and professional lives and are able to effectively use coping skills when bothered or upset. However, sometimes someone says something and we have a strong reaction to it or, something happens to us which sets off a strong reaction and we become highly emotional, or, “dysregulated”. The brain reacts to strong emotions and experiences in one of three noticeable ways. We refer to those reactions as either Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses and they are reactions identified by some combination of the following symptoms:

Fight: Yelling, rage, violence, defensiveness, chaotic feeling, feeling of being overwhelmed, tense

Flight: Use drugs, act out with process addiction (sex, shopping, gambling, eating, gaming), act impulsively in some other way, avoid, hide or withdrawal from others.

Freeze: Show flat or detached emotions, feel “shut down”, sleepy, disassociated, on auto pilot, or behaviorally, stonewall others.

When dysregulated we lose:
-the ability to use consequential thinking
– the ability to use our inner “pause and think” button
– the ability to control our impulses
– the ability to think rationally or analytically
– the ability to use good judgment
– the ability to communicate effectively

Using drugs or alcohol is one way to regain emotional calm but that can create its own problems and for addicts, life will spin out of control fast if they are using drugs and alcohol as their primary coping tool. At Pacific Shores, clients learn many approaches to better manage their emotional dysregulation and the description below is one technique that help us cope with those difficult emotional moments.

What to do: There are several steps to take that will help in re-establishing your emotional equilibrium.

1. Stop and notice that you feel dysregulated. Are you in Fight, Flight or Freeze mode? By identifying or naming which reaction you’re having, you are taking the first step in gaining back your emotional equilibrium and self-control.

2. Mobilize 1-3 coping skills that work for you:

-take a walk -take a hot bath or shower
-call your sponsor -journal
-call a friend -exercise
-listen to music -meditate or practice yoga or stretching
-attend a 12 step meeting -do art, play music, visit the beach or hike
-listen to guided deep relaxation found on You Tube
-read self-help books, the Big Book, or a bible

3. Once calm, try to identify the emotional trigger or feeling that set off the fight/flight/freeze response:
-fear -hurt -sad
-powerlessness -unsafe -rejected
-shame -humiliated -ignored
-guilt -abandoned -not considered
-loss -anxious -disappointed
-misunderstood -alone -emasculated

4. Give yourself a few moments to it with and process the difficult feeling. Did it remind you of anything from the past? Have you felt this before, long ago as a child? What memories come up as you sit with this feeling? By now you may have identified its source. Acknowledge and validate that this is a difficult feeling to experience. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel what you feel and that it’s part of being human.

5. To take this exercise one step further, say something to your inner child that you would have liked or needed to hear long ago. Try to find some words of reassurance, love, or empathy that you can give yourself now. Examples are:

– “You’re going to be okay.”

-“The danger has passed, it’s safe now.”

-“That person doesn’t know how their words affect me. What they said hurt and I can tell them.”

– “I don’t need to prove anything to this person.”

-“It’s okay to feel sad; there’s been a lot of loss. The feeling will pass.”

-“They are angry, let’s give them a moment to calm down.”

-“I don’t feel considered but maybe they are going through something difficult too.”

-“What’s going on for them that they reacted that way? I can simply ask.”

6. You will find this series of steps easier to do after practicing a few times. It will get easier and faster to gain back your emotional equilibrium and you will begin to heal some old emotional wounds that are getting triggered from the past. This is an essential skill to work on in recovery and will reduce your vulnerability to relapse.

At Pacific Shores Recovery, we recognize that many clients use drugs to cope with emotional dysregulation. It is a common trigger and something that often fuels relapses. The therapists will assess for emotional dysregulation patterns during initial interviews and work to teach clients a variety of skills that can help them overcome or better manage these difficult moments. By learning how to “down-regulate” the body with coping skills and avoid the quick fix that drugs provide, clients learn how to regain their emotional equilibrium which helps them function better with the rest of their lives.