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How I Experience and Cope With Emotional Dysregulation

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I have bipolar II disorder. Apparently. Or not. Who can tell? It’s not like you take a blood test and all is revealed. But I exhibit many of the traits and sometimes a label is handy. And sometimes it’s not. But there’s one thing that can be said for sure:

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I am emotionally dysregulated.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t like typing that — because there may be immediate judgments from some of you. But I want to explore exactly what emotional dysregulation is (from a non-expert point of view). Where it comes from (completely inexpert position). And what it means to me (a valid point of view in my opinion).

“Emotional dysregulation is a term used in the mental health community that refers to emotional responses that are poorly modulated and do not lie within the accepted range of emotive response. Emotional dysregulation can be associated with an experience of early psychological trauma, brain injury, or chronic maltreatment (such as child abuse, child neglect, or institutional neglect/abuse), and associated disorders such as reactive attachment disorder. Emotional dysregulation may be present in people with psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.” — Wikipedia

So, that’s what Wikipedia thinks. What I think is this:

My emotional dysregulation manifests as extreme sensitivity. I’ve written before about being a highly sensitive person and I adamantly believe that to be true. I feel people’s emotions acutely and I’m physically really sensitive. Flip flops cut holes between my toes. That’s how sensitive I am.

When I feel excited and joyful, I basically pee my pants. It has happened, I confess this to be true. I laugh hysterically and my whole body gets overly excited, including my already excitable bladder. There’s nothing like pee in your pants to take away from the whole joyfulness of a situation.

When I feel sad, I’m consumed by it. I can’t let the feeling go. I can’t stop thinking about the sad situation no matter how much I try to reason with myself. In recent years, I’ve learned to cry and tears just drip from my face, like a rusty tap that leaks without reprieve. For decades, those tears remained bottled up on the inside, unshed and poisoning me from the inside out. As undignified as it seems, they’re always better outside than in.

There’s a certain catharsis and honesty in allowing emotions to simply exist.

When I worry, it becomes catastrophic. Until such time as I write out my jumbled thoughts, worry escalates and manifests into a truly appalling cascade of completely ridiculous scenarios. I know how illogical irrational fears are. I can tell when worry is escalating into anxiety, then panic. I know it’s happening. I know a chipped toenail isn’t a brain tumor, but I have a very good imagination. And that imagination can create colorful canvases. I’m very good at it.

I do have a coping mechanism, though. One that deescalates all the catastrophizing. I write. Sometimes I write here, although recently I’ve only written sporadically. But I also journal. And it’s in my journal I write how terrified I am everyone I know and love is going to die. And when I finish writing, the fear is much less.

People tell me to just stop worrying.

Honestly. That is useless advice for me. Worrying isn’t a choice. I don’t wake up in the morning and decide I’m going to worry about shit. Do you? Perhaps you have better emotional regulation, you probably do. And perhaps when you start to worry, you keep perspective, let that worry go and move on. But telling somebody not to worry is like telling a crying person not to cry, or a laughing person not to laugh. It invalidates the emotion.

I’ve learned coping strategies through dialectical behavior therapy. It’s really good stuff, I highly recommend it. And my emotional regulation has vastly improved. But I’ll always be a sensitive person. I’ll always feel things — a lot. I may not show it or express it because stuffing emotions away is what I was taught. But stuffing them away doesn’t make them disappear, it just fills you up with emotional turmoil that expresses itself in some other way. Self-harm, disordered eating, addiction. There are lots of ways to ineffectively cope with unexpressed emotions, but that’s what comes to mind.

I’ve often wondered why I’m emotionally dysregulated. Was I born that way? Did I learn it? I don’t know. It’s probably a combination. My childhood wasn’t physically abusive, but it was emotionally traumatic (I’ve written a whole book about it!).

Sometimes I feel like I exhibit post-traumatic symptoms. In fact, I know I do. There are certain moments when I go from calm to panic in an instant and people don’t understand why. I’m consumed by fear of what’s about to happen, even if logically I know it’s nothing. Historically, things have happened and the panic is a fear of what might be, not what is. If I’m in the middle of a panic attack and you’re asking me to explain myself, your timing is off. Panic isn’t logical and a trauma response isn’t a choice.

I’ve learned skills, though. Through DBT, psychological therapy, and inpatient stays, I’ve learned to recognize and label emotions (that might seem ridiculously simple, but when you’ve spent a lifetime burying emotions it’s not easy to recognize them). I’ve learned distress tolerance skills. I’ve learned to put boundaries in place that protect me emotionally, just a little bit.

Emotional dysregulation is part of my life.

I don’t know any other way of living. We all grew up the way we grew up, and sometimes we might take for granted that’s the way things are. I can’t imagine what it’s like to continuously just roll with the punches and let it all go without worrying. I feel the punches and try to work out what I did wrong to get hit in the first place. That doesn’t change. But I’m learning not to carry all that worry into the future and to let the past be a lesson not a life sentence.

Unsplash image by Tiko Giorgadze

Originally published: October 10, 2021
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