Emotions have always troubled me! I have always found them frightening, always had difficulties labeling and controlling them. I have always seemed to put in an extra effort to keep them in check.
I have recently read a very good chapter from a book (1) which looks at emotional regulation and the role it seems to play in psychopathology. In fact, it is my view that emotional dysregulation lies at the heart of alcoholism, initiates, sustains and perpetuates this chronic disease state.
It was thus illuminating to see that emotional dysregulation is cited as being present in some 75% of disorders listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.
Alcohol Dependence in the DSM has a narrow definition, I believe, of alcoholism as mentioned in previous blogs. It relegates all manifestation of emotional, mood, impulse difficulties to that of “co-morbidities” which means it thinks there is a difficulty with unregulated drinking but the unregulated thinking, emotions and impulsive behaviour it relegates to being the consequence of a co-occurring condition such as anxiety disorder, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and so on. This is not to say that some of these conditions do not co-occur with alcoholism. PTSD and alcoholism co-occur quite frequently.
What I am saying is that a number of conditions/disorders attributed to alcoholism as a co-morbidity may not be co-morbidities at all, for some. They may be aspects of this psychiatric disorder I call alcoholism.
Although the relationship of these psychiatric symptoms with addiction is very close, substance abuse may modify pre-existing psychic structures and lead to addiction as a specific mental disorder, inclusive of symptoms pertaining to mood/anxiety, or impulse control dimensions, decision making difficulties or, as we suggest, the various characteristics of emotional dysregulation.
See blogs for more An Emotional Disease? and Current Definitions of Addiction – how accurate are they?
I do not want to rehash arguments mentioned elsewhere on this blog (especially as I want to discuss some emotional regulation difficulties I find are very pertinent to my alcoholism and maybe to yours?) Particularly “self elaboration” which seems to be at the heart of my alcoholism and appears very similar to the alcoholic mentioned in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Emotions are important in readying behavioral, motor,
and physiological responses, in facilitating decision making, in enhancing memory for important events, and for negotiating interpersonal relationships.
But emotions can also hurt as well as help! Emotions are not always helpful!
Psychopathology is largely characterised by excessive negative emotion. In those with emotional dysregulation, emotional regulation strategies helpful in childhood are now unhelpful in adulthood, such as use of an avoidant coping style where they down play threat and suppress feelings. This may have helped in surviving an abusive childhood but is not conducive to intimate adult relationships.
Another difficulty is not allowing a primary emotional response to proceed but instead suppressing it or resisting it e.g it is not okay for me to feel angry at my dying mother. Thereby, creating a maladaptive secondary emotional response e.g. guilt.
Secondary responses for resisted emotions coming from emotions
are experienced as anxiety producing, as reflected in rigid attentional
processes, lack of acceptance, and the activation of negative beliefs about emotions.
In order to ascertain if your emotional regulation is adaptive answer the questions below (and refer perhaps to your early recovery too!)
Do you not immediately react to the external situation or to one’s internal primary emotional response, but pause for a moment and give oneself some breathing room? Thus allowing space for the emotion to begin to arise free of immediate avoidance (e.g., cognitive, behavioral, or emotional avoidance), immediate resistance (e.g., “I shouldn’t want to feel this way”), or impulsive behavioural reaction (e.g reacting angrily or fearfully)?
Are you aware of your primary emotional response and be able to identify what emotion one is having in order to effectively control it?
Can you determine how controllable the situation that
caused the emotion is and how controllable one’s internal reaction to the situation?
For situations or internal thoughts or emotions that are out of one’s control, adaptive regulation is to accept the situation and experience . This is common to most therapeutic regimes.
Finally, how well do you inhibit/control inappropriate or impulsive behaviors when experiencing negative emotions?
All of the above, from a personal perspective, have improved the longer I have been in recovery. Although tiredness, or distress can prompt a quick return to emotional dysregulation.
Emotion regulatory strategies
The two regualtory strategies are two that most apply to me as an alcoholic. Attentional Deployment and Cognitive Change
See if they relate to you too, or to a loved one.
Specific forms of maladaptive attentional deployment include rumination, distraction and worry.
Rumination typically involves repetitive attentional focus on feelings associated with negative events, along with a negative evaluation of their consequences. It has been associated with increased levels of negative emotion. Rumination is constantly implicated in alcoholism.
We discuss this and catastrophizing in later blogs.
Before a situation that is attended to gives rise to emotion, the situation needs to be judged as important to one’s goals (i.e., appraisal).This stage of imbuing a situation with meaning can be influenced if one wishes to change the trajectory of the emotional response.
Cognitive change refers to changing how we appraise a situation to alter its emotional significance.
Two categories of reappraisals associated with psychopathology are (1) self-elaboration (e.g. “Others must think poorly of me”) and (2) emotional resistance/non acceptance of one’s current emotional experience (e.g., “I shouldn’t feel bad” ).
I personally find this “self elaboration” very applicable to myself as an alcoholic, this ” the self in reference to a situation can substantially increase the duration and complexity of emotional responses.”
For example, instead of my negative thoughts and feelings being processed and put to bed, they can be reignited throughout the day and can leave me feeling negative for hours afterward rather than just for the period following whatever incident provoked this emotional response initially.
This and other maladaptive emotional regulation strategies like rumination are shared with other disorders such as depression but this doesn’t mean they are the same disorders or that they co-occur. They are disorders which share common emotional dysregulation but ultimately have different behavioural manifestation.
They are not co-morbid but similar in certain ways but not all.
Back to self elaboration – Following my lack of appropriate emotional response above, I may feel negative the rest of the day, I may decide to ruminate, or complain or bitterly gossip with others, I may exhibit all the “defects of character” that came out in my step four inventory, such as pride, arrogance, intolerance, self-centredness, selfishness, anger, resentment, fear, dishonesty and so, all of which I feel are secondary emotional responding or emotional cascades. In fact, I believe step four through to seven helped me process the various episodes of emotional dysregulation I had running around my head and tearing at my heart for the thirty odd years prior to doing the steps.
The more I gossip and backbite, the more I think the person who “wronged me” is incompetent, it’s all his fault, my feelings are down to him! He caused this distress didn’t he? The injustice of it all!! These thoughts will reignite other emotions and thoughts – I should have stuck up for my self – guilt and this situation could be serious – fear. And so the cascade continues.
“I wonder if others think the same way about me, perhaps they don’t like me, perhaps I am not very popular!? – shame, self pity and maybe I am just not very lovable – despair ” and then it can delve into my distant past to my childhood, “well this is how my mother acted sometimes, maybe it is just me ! I’m the problem!”
It is difficult not to see this self-assassination as anything other than emotional dysregulation. My thinking, based on negative emotions, running away with themselves and increasing these negative emotions which then increased by distorted thinking, until “to hell with it, I’m not worth it, let’s get drunk!”
My emotional dysregulation is linked to a heightened reward sensitivity, I really like things that soothe my emotions like drink and drugs and I used them to regulate my emotions. I did not ruminate forever as in depression, I fixed it my external means, I consumed things and they change how I felt.
This makes my condition different to depression although plenty of depressives drink and abuse drugs. For me this heightened reward sensitivity meant I enjoyed them a whole lot more, got a whole lot out of them and decided that they would be part of how I dealt with things, emotions, life.
Our abnormal rejection to drink and drugs is a big part of our condition, our psychopathology, our psychiatric disorder. It has similarities with other conditions based on emotional dysregulation but it is also very different, That is why it demands a different treatment.
The wrong treatment will not Work!
The self elaboration means that I would consider many imagined scenarios all in relation or in reference to my self. The self has to be involved. Unfortunately this elaborates the meaning of my emotional responses and the emotional responses. All of a sudden there is a soap opera running in my head, a committee of wrongdoings, soon becoming a psycho drama. A friend of mine in AA calls it travelling via his intergalactic armchair!
Ruminating on things that did not occur as we think, will not occur as we think and have only caused a temporary insanity.
How is this not a psychiatric disorder!?
The emotions get increasing intense and proliferate. A many headed monster.
All usually because of my initial misperception of something that probably did not occur!
Werner, K., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation and psychopathology: A conceptual framework.