If, as children, we experienced, significant and protracted trauma we are at increased risk of developing various psychological difficulties as adults, including an increased risk of developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. One of the hallmarks of BPD, as we have also seen from other articles, is that the sufferer of the condition finds it very difficult indeed to control intense and volatile emotions. In effect, the emotional regulation system of individuals diagnosed with BPD is out of kilter and dysfunctional.
Our emotional regulation system determines how well we are able to control our emotions and neuroscientific studies strongly suggest that there are three subsystems in the brain that comprise this system; these three systems are as follows :
- THE THREAT SYSTEM
- THE DRIVE SYSTEM
- THE SOOTHING SYSTEM
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
1. THE THREAT SYSTEM:
Our threat system has evolved because it is crucial to our survival. When it is activated, we may respond in one of four ways: fight/flight/fear/fawn. It initially evolved to protect us from predators/attackers (wild animals or competing members of our own species). Of the three subsystems, it is our ‘default setting.’
If we experienced a significant amount of fear and anxiety as children, or had a dysfunctional with our primary carer, particularly in our very early years, it can become hypersensitive (especially in relation to perceived – i.e. real or imagined – social ‘threats’, such as rejection) and cause us a high degree of unnecessary distress in the form of images, cognitions (thoughts), physical reactions (such as rapid, shallow breathing/hyperventilation) and emotions (most commonly anxiety, anger, and disgust).
The threat system works according to the maxim that it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’ which inevitably means that much of what we perceive as threatening or dangerous actually isn’t – the principle of ‘better safe than sorry that the system acts on partly explains why, as a species, we are prone to:
– overestimating threat
– dwelling on things we believe may harm us
– allow our fears and concerns to take precedence in our minds over positive thoughts
(Remember, our genes ‘program’ us for survival; they are indifferent to the painful feelings we may experience if such feelings help to ensure this survival.)
2. THE DRIVE SYSTEM:
In order to help ensure our survival we also have strong motivations or drives – three fundamentally drives are to attain:
– shelter / safety
– sexual partners
The drive system ‘rewards’ us when we achieve goals by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain – this acts to reinforce our desire to keep achieving our goals. The hit/buzz/high we obtain from achieving goals is ephemeral and transient so, like a drug addict, we have a constant need to achieve more goals (by ‘goal’ I mean anything that increases dopamine availability in the brain and thus makes us feel good, be it eating ice-cream, getting a work promotion or buying a big house). The continual (and, some might argue, ultimately futile) formation and temporary fulfillment of needs go on and on, endlessly.
Examples Of Problems People May Develop In Connection With Their ‘Drive System:
One problem relating to the drive system is that some individuals experience drives so intensely that they develop impulse control disorders (the inability to prevent oneself from behaving in such a way that harm is caused to oneself or others, e.g. gambling). Another problem is that we can become very frustrated and distressed if:
– we unable to achieve our goals
– we set ourselves goals that are unrealistic
– we become so preoccupied and obsessed by the perceived allure of achieving our goals that it spoils our quality of life (often an intense need for high achievement is a symptom of inner feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability).
When this system becomes activated the threat and drive systems become deactivated. In terms of neurobiology, chemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain when the soothing system is operational – these chemicals produce a sense of calm, safety, peacefulness and contentment (self-hypnosis can be used to switch this system on). As infants, a strong and dependable relationship/bond/attachment with our mother/primary carer is crucial to the healthy development of the soothing system. Indeed, if this early relationship is in some way significantly dysfunctional we are very likely to develop into individuals who find it extremely difficult to calm / self-regulate negative emotions like anxiety anger. Having good, warm, dependable, and supportive relationships with others continues to be very important throughout life if our soothing system is to operate effectively.
THE ROLE OF NEUROPLASTICITY IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EMOTIONAL REGULATION SYSTEM :
How the brain is shaped and develops depends, to no small degree, upon our early life experiences (e.g. Schore, 2003); this is because of the quality of the brain known as neuroplasticity. Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, if, when we are young, we are regularly exposed to fear and danger because, for example, of the abusive treatment we receive from a parent or primary caregiver, the THREAT SYSTEM is at very high risk of being constantly over-activated in a way that leads it to operate in a dysfunctional manner; this dysfunction takes the form of the ‘fight/flight/freeze; response becoming hypersensitive, resulting in the affected individual developing grave difficulties keeping related emotions (such as anger, fear, and anxiety) in check.
Without appropriate therapy, such dysfunction may last well into adulthood or even for an entire lifetime. On the other hand, if, when we are young, we experience consistent and secure love, care, and emotional warmth from our parents / primary caregivers, our SOOTHING SYSTEM is ‘nourished’ and becomes optimally (or close to optimally) developed resulting in us becoming more able to cope with life’s inevitable stressors, less vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and fear, and more able to calm ourselves down and ‘self-soothe than those who had who were brought up in an environment in which they were exposed continuously to fear and danger.
However, even if we have had a traumatic early life and have problems regulating our emotions, there are various, simple things we can do to us control our feelings and develop our emotional regulation skills. (see below).
- AVOID REACTING IMMEDIATELY / IMPULSIVELY: For example, if someone triggers our anger, rather than making a reflexive response (such as saying something we’ll deeply regret later) it is better to wait until the rage has subsided – this may involve calming physiological symptoms like fast heart rate and tense muscles by using relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and visualization; we may, therefore, need to remove ourselves for a while (if possible) from the presence of whoever it may be that has upset us.
- MAKE POSITIVE ALTERATIONS TO THE SITUATION GIVING RISE TO OUR NEGATIVE EMOTIONS (although this will not always be feasible, of course)
- ALTER FOCUS OF ATTENTION (e.g. undertaking a distracting activity)
- ALTER WAY IN WHICH WE ARE THINKING ABOUT THE SITUATION: A therapy that can help with this is COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT).
USING NEUROPLASTICITY TO OUR ADVANTAGE :
Although the brain’s quality of neuroplasticity can work against us if we experience a traumatic early life, we can also take advantage of it later in life to help reverse any damage that was done to the development of our young and vulnerable brains.
DIALECTICAL BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (DBT) AND EMOTIONAL REGULATION SKILLS: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a therapy that was designed primarily for those who are suffering from borderline personality disorder (see above). A particularly useful emotional regulation skill taught within this therapy is called DISTRESS TOLERANCE which can be very helpful for those experiencing emotional distress due to intense, negative feelings. However, a recent metanalysis (Harvey et al., 2019) concludes that the effectiveness of DBT for helping with the control of emotions, over and above those of other standard treatments, should not at the time of writing be over-stated and that further research in relation to this is necessary.
COMPASSION FOCUSED THERAPY (CFT) :
Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) can also be an effective therapy for those suffering from emotional dysregulation.
REFERENCES: Harvey, L. et al. (2019). Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for Emotion Regulation Difficulties: A Systematic Review. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 April 2019 Schore, A. THE EFFECTS OF EARLY RELATIONAL TRAUMA ON RIGHT BRAIN DEVELOPMENT, AFFECT REGULATION, AND INFANT MENTAL HEALTH INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL, Vol. 22(1–2), 201–269 (2001) David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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