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Emotional Regulation and Dysregulation

Early emotional difficulties can be linked to certain problems in later life

Emotional Dysregulation


People who find it difficult to regulate their emotions are likely to have experienced relationships from caregivers that may have failed to offer a felt sense of being seen, heard or even, perhaps, loved.

Critically, moments of distress or confusion may not have been met with appropriate levels of comfort and understanding or soothing. For example, a child coming to a caregiver in distress may be dismissed or ignored. They may even provoke an angry or anxious reaction from caregivers. As a result, in adulthood, strong emotions such as fear, anger and sadness might sometimes feel as if they can’t or shouldn’t be expressed. Usually for fear of upsetting someone. Holding onto these strong feelings can feel lonely and ultimately, feelings such as anger and sadness can find their way into everyday situations and relationships. This is because those feelings have never been fully understood and dealt with.

In short, a capacity to emotionally regulate or soothe oneself in difficult situations as an adult may be under-developed. Perhaps because the person was not always shown how to soothe themselves when they were young.


Emotional dysregulation is a way of describing emotional responses that are not within a range of typical emotional reactions. These are often referred to as mood swings and might involve many emotions, including feeling mildly irritable or sad to full-blown anger, rage or despair.

Strong emotions, if we haven’t been shown how to manage them or we have witnessed our caregivers unable to manage them themselves, can feel anxiety-provoking or even threatening. Normally, when we feel threatened, the 'fight-or-flight' response kicks in. In this mode, our brains and bodies go into overdrive, enabling us to fight a potential threat or run away. As children, we may not have been shown that feeling frightened, sad or angry happens to everyone at times. In fact, we may have witnessed scenes where our caregiver’s sadness, fear or extreme anger may have seemed unbearable and extremely frightening or threatening. However, as children, we may have been unable to proactively do anything to help the situation (fight) or be able to leave an unhappy or, at times, frightening home (flight). Instead, children often enact another element of a fight-or-flight response: freeze. This means that, despite the body producing increased levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol that would normally equip a person to run long distances and increase blood clotting in case of injury, the child must stay where they are despite everything in their system telling them to flee.

Consistently having to internalise these difficult experiences might even result in a tendency to numb out, sometimes called dissociation. This can mean anything from a tendency to daydream to a full-blown sense of being somewhere (or even someone) else and is another form of flight. Keeping up such an array of internalised physical and psychological defences can be tiring and this could eventually lead to feeling low in mood, perhaps to the point of exhaustion: another aspect of the fight or flight response known as flop.

Finally, someone who has learnt from a very young age to keep their own strong emotions in check - for fear of upsetting others and provoking strong emotions in them - might adopt a people-pleasing persona. Always putting others’ imagined needs and wishes first can give us the impression that the threat of unpleasant emotions affecting others or ourselves might be kept to a minimum. This is a safety strategy – a coping mechanism for dealing with a sense of emotional dysregulation – that makes us feel safer.

Safety strategies can range from a tendency to people please to a sense that always performing certain rituals will mean nothing will go wrong to even perhaps, if what has happened to us has been extremely traumatic, to believing that it didn’t happen or that it happened to another ‘part’ of us that isn’t us.


In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forward a theory that all humans have a hierarchy of needs. Containing 5 levels, this is usually depicted as a pyramid.

Sadly, many people struggle to have their needs met, even at the most basic levels. People who underwent emotional neglect or frequent or prolonged periods of exposure to heightened states of adult emotion as children – such as those displayed in loud arguments - may experience deficits or difficulties in the way they process interacting with others and their own emotions or moods. They might find they are susceptible to depression, relationship difficulties, obesity, problems with addiction and self-harming behaviours. Therefore, the potential cost to individuals — and broader human society — concerning how emotions are managed and modelled in childhood is hugely significant.

In recent decades, neuroscience, combined with research into how human beings form attachment relationships, has begun to explore how early experiences might affect the developing brains of children. When faced with distressing, dangerous situations, the fight or flight response means our brains are more likely to dissociate or shut down.  

An important area of the brain that shuts down in a child’s internal version of ‘flight’ is a part of the rational brain called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe allows us to put feelings into words, locate ourselves in space and time, and interpret the stimuli we receive from the world outside. If we have been unfortunate enough to experience what might be described as trauma during our childhoods - that is one or perhaps, many episodes where we or someone we care about was at risk of harm of even death - different ‘emotional’ parts of the brain take over. However, these emotional parts of the brain are not thought to be under our conscious control and are less able to communicate using words. 

As a result, trauma memories are not believed to be stored in the brain in the same way as normal memories. Instead, trauma memories remain in the brain as emotional or sensory fragments such as images, sounds, smells and feelings. Therefore, triggering trauma memories can leave a person feeling extreme anxiety or even panic attacks but without a coherent story that remembers precisely why. 

Developing a trusting relationship with a therapist that feels non-judgemental and supportive can allow emotions that have felt consistently dysregulated to begin to feel more regulated: heard, understood and soothed. 

Ultimately, the purpose of therapy, is to equip someone to become their own therapist. Having been helped in therapy, a person can become better able to help themselves and those around them, to lead healthier emotional lives. Perhaps to begin to attain the top three levels of Maslow’s pyramid (above): love and belonging, increased self-esteem and a sense that we are ‘self-actualized’. In other words, the person we would really like to be.


Therapy lasts for 50 minutes and tends to costs £75 for individual sessions.

Therapy is most effective when conducted weekly for as long as it feels helpful and productive. Your therapist will agree with you on the number of sessions that are likely to prove most effective but normally 6 sessions would be the optimal number for achieving lasting and sustainable results. The first initial session is free.

Click on the link below to book a 30-minute free consultation to see if we are a good fit to successfully work together.

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