Research suggests (1) suggest individuals with poorly regulated emotions often turn to alcohol to escape from or down-regulate their emotions, creating a risk for diagnosable problems in relation to alcohol difﬁculties as this impairment in emotion regulation is associated with alcohol-related disorders and substance-related disorders (2).
Experiential avoidance of thoughts, emotions, sensations,memories, and urges can lead to a variety of negative outcomes such as problems with substance use, because it paradoxically increases negative thoughts (3)
Thus risk factors include suppression (including both expressive suppression and thought suppression), avoidance (including both experiential avoidance and behavioral avoidance), and rumination.
Emotional distress, which is chronically higher in people with emotion dysregulation, appears to potentiate (heighten) reward systems in the brain (1), and this potentiation may be even greater in individuals high in reward sensitivity, increasing the chances they will turn to alcohol. Intake of alcohol will be reinforced both by the satisfaction of high appetitive drives and by the reduction of negative emotions these individuals otherwise cannot regulate. Thus, the combination of emotional dysregulation and high reward sensitivity should be a potent risk factor for the development and/or maintenance of substance abuse and eating disorder.
Emotion dysregulation may occur if emotions are experienced as intense and overwhelming, when individuals have not learned how or when to apply effective strategies, when strategies are not applied flexibly, when the strategies fail, or when strategies are overused, emotion regulation patterns may interfere with the ability to successfully achieve goals. Emotion dysregulation still involves attempts at regulation, but the process leads to maladjustment rather than adjustment. For example, emotion dysregulation may result in poor interpersonal relationships, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed by emotions, or inability to inhibit destructive behaviors.
Components of emotional dysregulation include a tendency for emotions to spiral out of control, change rapidly, get expressed in intense and unmodified forms, and/or overwhelm both coping capacity and reasoning. (4)
Self regulatory deficits like these may emerge from an interaction of intrinsic biological factors as well as from chaotic or stressful early life experiences, particularly child abuse and problematic attachments with caregivers.
Emotional Dysregualtion may be present in overly restricted emotional expression and avoidance or excessive emotionality and excitement seeking. This research (4) highlighted that the idea that emotional dysregualtion is a distinct construct, related to but not reducible to negative effect (anxiety, mood, negative emotions) and may be seen as the result of the developmental capacity to adaptively regulate emotions being disturbed by early disruptive experiences. In other words, abuse in early childhood can help determine how we cope with our emotions.
Maladaptive cognitive emotion regulation strategies such as rumination (5 ) and thought suppression (6) have been linked to a number of negative psychological outcomes. Binge-eating (7), and other impulsive behaviors (8) may all be a result of emotion dysregulation.
Selby (9 ) addresses the issues of why does emotion dysregulation appear to result in behavioral dysregulation? The connection may lay in the use of certain cognitive emotion regulation strategies (cognitive emotion dysregulation) that actually increase the intensity of negative emotions and cause an individual to engage in maladaptive behavioral emotion regulation strategies (behavioral dysregulation) in order to down-regulate these intense emotions.
In essence, the way we regulate our emotions may actually cause us to lose control of them. These are often considered “impulsive” behaviors, without premeditation. While not a behavioral emotion regulation strategy per se, urgency may be part of what causes certain individuals to engage in behavioral dysregulation. Individuals who exhibit high levels of urgency, feeling the need to act when faced with emotional distress, may be more likely to engage in maladaptive behaviors such as substance abuse as a result of emotion dysregulation.
The best characterized cognitive emotion regulation strategy is rumination. Rumination (5) is the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s emotional experience. Rumination is an important risk factor for substance abuse (10)
Thought suppression is another emotion regulation strategy as is catastrophizing (11) the tendency to continuously think about how bad a situation is and the negative effects that the current situation has on the future. Using catastrophizing as an emotion regulation strategy has been found to increase emotional distress (12)
All of the cognitive emotion strategies discussed (rumination, thought suppression, and catastrophizing) appear to have a common theme: they all focus attention on emotionally relevant stimuli, usually negative.
Furthermore, evidence has shown that ruminative processes tend to amplify the effect of negative affect.
Yet the tendency to ruminate on negative emotional thoughts increases levels of negative affect, and in turn the increase in negative affect increases levels of rumination followed by a flood of racing negative emotional thoughts, which in turn increase levels of negative affect in a vicious, repetitive cycle – an emotional cascade.
As a recovering alcoholic, this rumination and catastrophizing is very similar to what we call resentments the constant resending of negative emotions and accompany thoughts, each cycle making the emotions and thoughts more distressing.
Mixed with the self elaboration we discussed in another blog, then more has a heady cocktail of distressing resentments.
As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says “resentments kill more alcoholics than anything else”
It is thus difficult to see alcoholism as anything other than a disorder of emotional regulation.
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