Emotional dysregulation is not a term exclusive to the neurodivergent community, though it is an unfortunate feature of life for so many of us with neurodivergencies such as autism, ADHD, bipolar and borderline personality disorder (BPD) and PTSD.

When we are emotionally dysregulated, the feelings that we experience in response to experiencing certain emotions, and the behavioural reactions that accompany those feelings would be considered an ‘over-reaction’ by others. These reactions can manifest in a multitude of ways, from showing impatience, anger or aggression at ourselves or others, screaming, crying uncontrollably, self-harming, and even suicidal thoughts or attempts. We are not in control of our emotions during these episodes.

It all sounds very extreme doesn’t it? The intensity of these experiences feels extreme too. Those who can’t understand them commonly describe witnessing such unexpected outbursts as ‘completely hysterical’, ‘having a tantrum’, ‘just attention seeking’, ‘must be hormonal’ or ‘they just went nuts’.

It’s very sad that we have to experience these frightening emotions, better known to us as meltdowns, and it’s made worse by the fact that so few people understand what they are seeing and why these are happening.

Emotional dysregulation can also show itself, or rather not show itself, in the form of a shutdown – where the intensity of emotion is so unbearable that shutting our emotional ‘systems’ down is the only way our minds can, unconsciously, deal with it. The aim being to experience and feel nothing. Yet again, largely unrecognised for the damaging event that a shutdown is – it isn’t a refusal to engage, it’s self-preservation at the most basic level. No amount of cajoling is going to rouse someone who has reached shutdown. The time and environment that will allow us to repair – that is what we need.

You’ll find more on meltdowns and shutdowns on the relevant glossary pages.

So, how to turn our dysregulation back to a state of being regulated? Well, we don’t see these emotional ruptures coming and when they’ve occurred we can do nothing but rest and wait for them to heal. What we can do is start recognising those environmental triggers that most commonly set them off. We can then limit our exposure to them, where possible. We can tell others about these triggers and, if we are fortunate enough to have supportive friends, relatives and employers, that removes so many of the pressures.

We need to understand and respect our needs.

This can be so difficult to achieve, especially if it means fulfilling these basic needs will have an impact on others. A mundane example:

“I know you’re disappointed but I’m afraid I can’t come out to lunch to meet your parents today, because I had a haircut this morning and I now realise I need a quiet afternoon, on my own, in the countryside, to recover my energy.”

As adults, it can be hard to be as honest as this; we worry that we sound self-indulgent or childish. What, for instance, has having had a haircut got to do with our need to with our need to have a peaceful afternoon?  Read the post on hairdressers to find out!

We’re not being self-indulgent and childish in acknowledging that we’ve reached our limit, we’re respecting our needs. We’re being sensible, insightful and we’re taking preventative action. We are prioritising our health and well-being over our fear of causing temporary offence to others and possible social embarrassment to ourselves. There is no shame at all in being honest – these are needs, not desires.

If the people around us really know us, care for us, and want us to be well, they will soon start to see that the more time we are able to spend prioritising those aspects of life that soothe us, that regulate us – such as our beloved special interests, the more balanced we become. The more we can make use of healthy coping mechanisms to soothe our anxiety, the better we will be able to regulate our emotions, the happier and more stable our lives can be. It’s not quite this simple of course; unexpected events are a frequent trigger for many of us and, by their very nature, we can’t plan for them! But if we are in tune with our needs for as much of our lives as we can be, and we can learn to look out for the signs, and ask others to do the same, we are doing all that we can.

It may be time for us to get out that delicious stationery and make a really honest list, if we haven’t already.

Two columns:

MELTDOWN TRIGGERS                                                                   COPING STRATEGIES


I confess that I’ve never actually put my mental list of triggers and strategies on paper myself! So, I shall stop here and take my own advice…