Emotional dysregulation is a term used in health and welfare to describe someone who is reactive, unable to learn from experience, is rigid, lacks empathy, is very self focused and yet unable to care for themselves. There’s more but that will do for the purpose of my blog. It is also a diagnostic term used in mental health and is one of the indicators for labelling someone with borderline personality disorder.
I’m not sure if it’s my imagination but as 2016 hurtled to a close it felt like the whole country was emotionally dysregulated. What stood out in my mind besides my individual madness was: the reactive, combativeness of our politicians, the quality of peoples driving, the shopping panic and frenzy including the Boxing Day Sales, even the weather was erratic and extreme.
Emotional dysregulation is the result of a traumatic experience. The current research in neuroscience tells us that if we suffer ongoing trauma in childhood we will have produced chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which does do damage to the ability to regulate emotions. Most of us regulate ourselves through some form of a reflective process – cortisol prevents this resulting in chronic ‘flight/fight/freeze’ responses. Consequently our significant relationships are dissatisfying often leaving a profound yearning that is rarely satisfied.
This disappointment is often the most commonly felt emotion, but is rarely recognised, creating a constant search for some way to soothe distress. In this state we’re often tricked by opportunistic marketing promising that with this product life will be better.
At the end of 2016 most of the people I talked with felt exhausted and very much in need of a break. The question in my mind is a break from what? Yes, work is the obvious answer along with the daily grind of getting everyone out the door at a certain time; but now our technology, particularly our phones go with us everywhere.
More and more I’m coming to believe our phones, this little device that we all love, are problematic. Not in its own right but in our relationship to it, for most of us it has an addictive force that is emotionally dysregulating. It interferes with everything with a variety of noises, each with their special code. Even though I am so aware of this phenomenon I constantly catch myself turning away from a friend or worse my granddaughter, to attend to the number one in my life – my phone! I find it so hard to ignore.
I’ve lived most of my life without a mobile phone but for my granddaughter her love affair with the phone has already become well embedded. What this means for the future who knows, but what I do know is that if you’ve got a distressed child give them your phone – it works every time!
I’m not being critical of this but once again I am wanting to call our attention to the potential outcome and provide a reminder to build in other emotional regulating practises. Remembering that soothing rituals contribute to keeping our brains fully functional, which means having the ability to plan, reflect, be empathetic to others and kind to ourselves.
It’s so tempting to let our phones direct our activities. I’ve just started to use the calendar and was surprised to receive a sound telling me I needed to leave home because it was going to take me 47 minutes to arrive at my destination. Whilst this makes life so easy, it also means many brain functions aren’t getting a workout. Like picturing the process of getting to where ever you are going, including the time needed for getting ready and out the door. Not to mention all the creative skill that goes into thinking up excuses for being late. These simple functions all exercise the abstract parts of the brain. They build and reinforce trust in our ability to organise ourselves.
I believe this gradual slide into reliance on technology to guide us through our day, is very different to using it as a tool, and somehow the two functions have become merged. In this merging, there is the stress of continual interruption and demand.
Our phone is slowly becoming our brain, slowly we are turning our own brains off, which in turn feeds emotional dysregulation, hence we become more reactive and less able to regulate ourselves. Even if we try to engage in a soothing regulating activity if our phone goes with us it will at some point make a demand, but the thought of leaving it at home or switching it off; even thinking about this I can feel fear … what if something happens?
This is the key. Fear is becoming the primary emotional driver of everything we do, the result is a loss of trust and low grade anxiety. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to hold onto the notion that regardless of what we eat, wear, say or do, most of us will survive the day.