NHS Lothian

Managing emotions

2 min read

What are emotions? 

Emotions are a normal and healthy part of your internal world. They are internal feelings and reactions that you experience in relation to things that happen to or around you. In any given day, you can experience lots of emotions. These might be positive, negative or neutral emotions. Some might feel easy to deal with, while others are more intense and difficult to manage. It’s normal to struggle with your emotions at times and everyone has this experience. However, if you have difficulties managing your emotions for a long period of time, it can lead to mental health problems.


What’s it like to struggle with managing your emotions?

If someone struggles to manage their emotions over a long period of time, this can be called emotional dysregulation. It may help to think about your emotions as being a bit like your blood pressure. Having blood pressure that is too high or too low can negatively affect your health. So, you want to aim to keep things within a healthy range. This healthy range is sometimes referred to as your “window of tolerance.”

When your emotions are too intense (or too high) then you may feel anxious, panicky, distraught, “hyper” or overwhelmed. When your emotions are too intense it’s very difficult to slow down, take stock of what you’re feeling and to act on those emotions in healthy ways. So sometimes you may react impulsively, without thinking about the consequences. When your emotions are not intense enough (or too low), then you may feel depressed, numb, disconnected or empty. You may get stuck in a rut of negative thinking, or you may find it difficult to think of anything at all. You might feel mentally exhausted and want to withdraw. You might also experience a kind of zoning-out, or detachment from yourself and the world. This is sometimes called dissociation.


What causes emotional dysregulation? 

It’s likely that a combination of biological and environmental factors leads some people to be more sensitive to emotional distress than others. There’s some suggestion that some people are biologically more sensitive to negative emotions. This means that they might experience negative emotions more easily, at a higher level of intensity, and for a longer duration than other people. It’s also likely that experiences in childhood, adolescence and adulthood shape how people deal with their emotions. Some people may not have been shown ways to tolerate emotional discomfort appropriately in childhood. An example of this might be a child being punished for showing normal emotions, like crying, when they were sad. Others may have only been shown unhelpful ways of dealing with their emotions, such as seeing a loved one use alcohol to deal with their own emotions.

Finding it difficult to manage emotions can also be a consequence of other problems, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, or severe stress. It’s important to know that you can learn to manage your emotions in healthy ways, at any stage in your life.

How common is emotion dysregulation? 

Experiencing a range of emotions is an important part of being human and is essential to survival. Not surprisingly, most people dislike feeling upset or distressed. These feelings are not pleasant, but experiencing difficult emotions is a natural part of life. If you find it very difficult to tolerate or cope with distress, or if you think you might be stuck in unhelpful patterns of coping, then visit our ‘Manage’ section to learn ways of overcoming these patterns.

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