Understanding Emotion Dysregulation

emotion dysregulation

Understanding Emotion Dysregulation: Hypoarousal and Hyperarousal States

It is not uncommon for us to experience an intensity of emotion when faced with stressful life experiences, unexpected changes, a conflict of interests and values, and multiple demands.  In our previous post, we discussed the term ‘Window of Tolerance’ as a stable emotional state in which we are able to balance our emotional needs with our logical reasoning to make informed decisions and problem solve. 

When we are in our window of tolerance, we are better able to manage interpersonal relationship issues, socialize, and engage harmoniously with others around us.  When we experience ‘emotion regulation’, we are able to not only experience and manage a range of emotions, but also we are able to stabilize our mood overtime utilizing appropriate coping skills and daily habits that contribute to a sense of purpose, direction, and overall life satisfaction.  

Stress and Trauma

When we have experienced extended periods of stress,  a trauma in our life or have experienced multiple episodes of sustained neglect, abandonment or abuse, it is common for us to struggle with managing stress and regulating the intensity of our emotions.  Often those who are seeking trauma treatment are also seeking ways to regulate their emotions. 

When our bodies sense that we are distressed or perceive a threat in the environment, signaled through one or more of our senses, it may communicate to the body’s autonomic nervous system that there is danger.  Such signals will prompt automatic changes in the body, causing a variety of different possible responses to the situation- fight, flight, freeze, or submit.  


Depending on the perceived threat and environment, the body may release neurochemicals, including adrenaline,  to the sympathetic nervous system to engage the fight or flight response.  When adrenaline is released into the body, one may experience an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, tension of muscles and an increase in energy stimulating a behavioral reaction. 

If our bodies sense that this type of response is not safe or if our bodies sense that the threat is no longer imminent, neurochemicals will then be released into the body to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.  When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body transitions to a slower heart rate and breathing rate and feelings of weakness, low energy and numbness may take over. 

Fight or Flight

As mentioned above, our bodies may respond to a perceived external threat by engaging in  ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, which are responses connected to a hyperarousal state of dysregulation.  When we experience hyperarousal, our bodies display automatic responses such as panic, impulsivity, hypervigilance, reactive anger, racing thoughts, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, dread and paranoia. 

When the body has the urge to “freeze” or “submit”, it is experiencing a state of dysregulation known as hypoarousal.  In a hypoarousal state of dysregulation, one might experience numbness, passive urges, lack of feeling, low energy, foggy thinking, reduced physical activity, intense shame, disconnection, feeling ‘shut down’, slowed thinking and absence of sensation.

Coping Skills

It is important to understand the ways your body responds to different external triggers and stimuli.  By acknowledging that a loud noise or an interaction with a condescending family member can promote certain reactions in your body, you have more information that you can use to cope ahead for these situations as well as prevent yourself from intensifying the emotions or ‘fueling the fire’ so to speak. 

Emotion regulation skills are helpful in expanding your window of tolerance and distress tolerance skills are helpful in managing the intensity of your emotions so that you can regulate enough to enter back into your window.  

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