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.
What Is The Emotional Regulation System?
The emotional regulation system is fundamentally comprised of three interacting parts of the brain; these are as follows :
- THE THREAT SYSTEM (detects and reacts to threats)
- THE DRIVE SYSTEM (motivates us to identify and seek resources)
- THE SOOTHING SYSTEM (helps balance the two systems above and engenders in us a sense of well-being, satisfaction and contentment)
Each of these three systems is neither good nor bad per se, as long as they are in balance and interacting healthily and functionally. However, each system is vulnerable to becoming dysfunctional (as occurs in the case of those suffering from BPD, for example).
THE ROLE OF NEUROPLASTICITY IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EMOTIONAL REGULATION SYSTEM :
How the brain is shaped and develops depends, in 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 (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) :
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 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.
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).