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Navigating Emotions: Understanding Emotional Dysregulation and Distress Tolerance

Emotions are an integral part of the human experience, they inform us about the world around us and what’s important to us, and they can be incredibly powerful forces that shape our thoughts and behaviors. However, managing emotions is a skills that few of us are actually taught growing up. For many people managing, emotions can be challenging, leading to emotional dysregulation. Distress tolerance is also a skill that can help individuals cope with overwhelming emotions so as to not ‘make matters worse.’. In this blog, we will delve into the differences between emotional dysregulation and distress tolerance, exploring how these concepts impact our mental well-being and the strategies to cultivate healthier emotional responses.

Emotional Dysregulation:

Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulties in managing or expressing emotions in a balanced and adaptive manner. Intense emotional reactions that may be disproportionate to the situation, leading to impulsive behaviors and heightened sensitivity and interpersonal conflict. People experiencing emotional dysregulation may struggle to manage and effectively express their emotions. This can result in emotional outbursts, mood swings, and feelings of being overwhelmed by depression or anxiety. Emotion regulation skills, therefore, are skills that help individuals keep emotions in the “typical range” of ups and downs, rather than the extreme. 

Signs of Emotional Dysregulation:
As with anything we want to change – identification is the first step. Here are some hacks to noticing the signs of emotional dysregulation: 

  • Intense and Unpredictable Emotions: People with emotional dysregulation may experience extreme emotional highs and lows that seem to come out of nowhere or don’t necessarily match the provoking event. 
  • Difficulty Coping: High emotional sensitivity may cause everyday stressors to feel overwhelming, causing intense emotional reactions and making it challenging to regain composure and return to baseline. 
  • Impulsive Behaviors: Impulsive acting on urges associated with intense emotions, such as engaging in self-harm, substance abuse, or reckless actions, is an indicator of emotional sensitivity and reactivity, which are hallmarks of emotional dysregulation. 
  • Stormy Relationships: Frequent conflicts and difficulties maintaining stable relationships occurs because the intense emotions create urges, and urges might get acted upon which can damage the quality of relationships. 

Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance refers to the ability to withstand and cope with emotional distress in a healthy and constructive manner. It help individuals ‘not make things worse.’ It involves learning how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions or situations, sometimes when we can’t escape them like a road trip with family members,  without resorting to harmful behaviors or becoming overwhelmed. Distress tolerance skills can help individuals ride out intense emotions without reacting impulsively, allowing them to make better decisions and maintain emotional stability.

Strategies for Developing Distress Tolerance

  • Mindfulness: this is really just self-awareness, and  helps individuals stay present and observe their emotions without judgment, which can reduce the intensity of distress and slow things down so they can make healthier choices. 
  • Grounding Techniques: Engaging the senses through grounding techniques, such as focusing on the breath, touching objects, or noticing specific sensations, can help bring attention back to the present moment and reduce emotional overwhelm.
  • Self-Soothing: Engaging in self-soothing activities, like taking a warm bath, reading a favorite book, or listening to calming music, can offer comfort during times of distress.
  • Crisis Survival Skills: If the urges involve dangerous behaviors, distraction skills can be effective, temporary skills to manage a crisis,improving the moment, and ultimately help individuals cope with extreme emotional states.

Understanding the differences between emotional dysregulation and distress tolerance skills is crucial for promoting emotional well-being. Emotional dysregulation can significantly impact a person’s life, leading to impulsive or even dangerous actions and unstable relationships. On the other hand, distress tolerance equips individuals with the tools to cope with those intense emotions effectively, reducing the risk of harmful behaviors and enhancing emotional stability.

This is a journey that involves practice and patience. Seeking support from mental health professionals, like therapists, counselors or mentors, can provide valuable guidance in managing emotions and building healthier coping mechanisms. By cultivating distress tolerance and learning to navigate emotions more effectively, individuals can lead a more balanced and fulfilling life, even in the face of challenging emotions.

If you or a loved one could use help learning both of these skills, check out our DBT programs on our website: connectionsfamilycenter.com. 

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