Affect Regulation

“When your emotions are all over the place –that is dysregulated –your life can feel hijacked by their intensity. When you are constantly feeling triggered, your day-to-day life and relationships are affected, and you often feel out of control. It’s like being in the ocean in a storm, in a small lifeboat with no oars and no life preserver, fearing for your life,”
― Lynne Friedman-Gell and Joanne Barron, 2020, pg.85

What is Affect Regulation?

Affect regulation and its inverse “Affect Dysregulation”, in basic terms, means our ability to manage and appropriately respond to our experience of emotions, remaining in the window of tolerance (see below).. It refers to the ability to experience intense positive and negative “affects” or moods, without having our feelings become hijacked, becoming overwhelmed or employing protective strategies such as numbing, dissociation, alcohol/drugs, or other defenses.

For those of us who suffer from underlying trauma, affect regulation deficits will often need to be an initial focus of treatment. Therapy that specifically targets affect regulation is designed to help you develop the ability to experience and respond to emotions in healthier ways.

To this aim, we learn that our goal is to stay present within the “Window of tolerance”.

Window of Tolerance

This term, coined by Dan Siegel is used to understand the effects of stress on our nervous system, and common brain or body reactions. The idea is that there is an optimal level of arousal within which we can effectively process and integrate our experiences. We may experience stressful situations or emotions—hurt, anxiety, pain, anger—that threatens to take us out of that window, although generally we are able to stay regulated.

Disruptions in our early attachment put this ability at risk, as our senses are heightened and our window of tolerance becomes constricted. We may find ourselves bouncing between hyperarousal and hypoarousal at opposite ends of the spectrum, feeling chronically stressed, tense, anxious and overwhelmed at one end, or numb, deadened, and depressed on the other or remain stuck in high or stuck in low.

In addition to disruptions in attachment, without proper training, we also may not know we have the ability to experience our emotions in a healthy way. When we’re young, often we’re told messages meant to calm us that typically do anything but: “just get over it”, or “stop crying, you’re fine”. When our caregivers don’t acknowledge or soothe our emotions, rarely do we develop the skills to do so ourselves.

As a result, we may “rise” into states of high anxiety, hypervigilance, anger, rage, distress, dysregulation, or fall into states of dysphoria, depression, dissociation, and freeze. While these symptoms and the trauma we experience may be out of our control, the skills to manage and regulate these emotions can be learned and mastered through affect regulation therapy.

How Therapy Can Help

At Trauma and Beyond ®, we use affect regulation therapy to help our clients develop the skills they need in order to achieve the capacity to regulate their emotions.

There are many different approaches to provide affect regulation therapy and to teach clients how to self-regulate their emotions. Body-focused approaches in particular, such as Somatic Experiencing, TRM, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and DBT can be helpful in working to regulate the nervous system and increase resilience in clients.

How Can Affect Regulation Help?

If you are having trouble regulating your emotional output, affect regulation therapy might be the best path for you.

People engage in different emotional regulation strategies when they try to deal with their emotions. These different strategies impact their feelings, emotional well-being, and even their close relationships. The skill of affect regulation is required in order to be able to stay present, and to stay within the window of tolerance.

With the ability to manage your emotions, you are much more likely to seek out new experiences, challenge yourself, and follow your dreams. What’s more, clients that once felt like a stranger in and a victim to their body can feel at peace, perhaps even for the first time in their lives.

It’s amazing what affect regulation therapy can help you achieve once you learn the power of emotional self-regulation!

Am I dysregulated?

  • Do you find yourself facing mood swings on a regular basis?
  • Do your reactions tend to be immediate and extreme?
  • Are you familiar with the fluctuations of moving between states of numbness and states of agitation?
  • Does stress cause you to feel panicked, agitated or angry?
  • When faced with difficult emotions do you withdraw, feeling numb, go blank?
  • Do you feel “on edge”, anxious, or have trouble turning off your mind at night?
  • Have you had a traumatic experience that you feel shapes the way you deal with your emotions?
  • When you feel stressed, do you react by becoming lethargic, pushing off responsibilities because you’re too emotionally overwhelmed?Or do you become panicky, uneasy and hypervigilant?