If your head feels like it is spinning and you struggle to function when uncertain times hit, you are not alone. During uncertain times, it is normal and human to experience intense emotions, as we yearn to make sense of what is happening in and around us. With the right support and coping skills, our intense emotions can become gifts that help us process what is happening and move forward with strength.

However, when we don’t have the coping skills we need for intense emotions, times of uncertainty can also leave us floundering.  This often means that there is a gap between the coping skills we have and the coping skills we need to navigate uncharted waters. The good news is that we can learn to identify patterns of dysregulation in our lives and close the coping skills gap so that we can experience relief and better weather the ups and downs of life.

*Disclaimer: This article does not substitute for professional help. If you are having difficulty coping, don’t hesitate to get help from a trained counselor or therapist. If you feel you need immediate help, please text HOME to 741741 or dial 988, or find international support numbers at Find a Helpline .

Understanding dysregulation and windows of tolerance

Dysregulation happens when our emotions about what is happening in our personal lives or careers become more intense than our ability to cope with them. As an INFJ personality type, Enneagram 6 and trauma survivor, I remember losing hours of time through dissociation after I missed the mark on something major in my professional life. The hours slipped away, and I felt guilty that nothing of value had gotten done, but I couldn’t seem to stay present long enough to achieve my goals, which seemed to create a vortex of shame.

A dear friend of mine is an ENTJ and Enneagram 3 who experienced a different response to intense emotions about professional and personal life changes. She started drinking coffee to excess, avoided breaks and overworked on professional or homeschool projects to try to achieve perfection. My dear friend wanted so desperately to look like she had it all together, but she secretly felt like she was drowning.

Under great duress, our bodies are designed to protect us through resorting to one or more of four main responses, as described by Pete Walker:

1.       Fight: Feelings of anger and a desire to control what is happening through manipulation, determination, intimidation or shame.

2.       Flight: Desire to achieve perfection in order to achieve safety. Obsessive behaviors, rumination and worry are common.

3.       Freeze: Persistent feelings that other people are dangerous and a desire for isolation through dissociation, sleep, escaping through television, social media or addictions.

4.       Fawn: Desire to engage in people pleasing through losing yourself in the wants, desires or beliefs of others. Over-caring, over-helping and a martyr complex are signs of a fawn response.

When we are operating in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response, it means that we are operating outside of our window of tolerance, where we feel most capable of tackling what life throws our way. Ordinary responsibilities can feel overwhelming because the amygdala has hijacked the steering wheel of our brain. This also means that the frontal areas of the brain responsible for decision making have reduced activity or pull, causing even simple choices to feel confusing or overwhelming.

Whether a person typically experiences a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response in uncertain times depends partially on personality type and partially on life story. For instance, an Enneagram 2 might tend toward a fawn response when dysregulated. Or, a Two with an unprocessed trauma history could tend toward a fight response when they feel underappreciated in their efforts to please others.

Circumstances that Contribute to Dysregulation

The circumstances that trigger people into dysregulation vary, as everyone has a unique mix of social support, tools for regulation, and life history. A few examples of circumstances that could cause intense emotions and dysregulation include:

  • Loss of a job through being laid off or fired

  • Conflict at home or on the job

  • Economic instability and uncertainty

  • Change of job location, such as working from home instead of the office

  • Change in family responsibilities, such as the birth of a new baby, new homeschooling responsibilities or marital conflict

  • Change in job responsibilities, such as being promoted, demoted, moving to another department or a company reorganization

  • Loss of a friend or family member through death or estrangement

  • Natural disaster or  troubling world circumstances, like the Corona pandemic

  • Abuse or bullying

  • Serious accidents, health concerns or challenges

  • Community violence

  •  A loved one or colleague who is dysregulated

Someone who has experienced many challenges in life might find that they become more easily triggered into dysregulation. With the right tools, we can work our way back into the window of tolerance so that we are better able to function well on the job and at home.

Early Signs of Dysregulation and Tools for Coping

When we are in the early stages of dysregulation, we still retain some frontal brain ability to make clear decisions and find relief. Some signs that you might be experiencing low-level dysregulation include:

  • Mounting feelings of stress

  • Increased heart rate

  • Lack of motivation

  • People-pleasing behaviors

  • Rumination

  • Crankiness

  • Tearfulness

  • Unacted on desires to isolate or cling to others

  • Feeling like one more thing is too much

  • Gnawing feeling that you need to take care of yourself

These early signs of dysregulation vary based on your personality type and personal history, and they are excellent messengers about your need to regroup. At this stage, it can be helpful to aim for positive micro-experiences that send the message to your nervous system that all is well. Some ideas at this stage include:

  • Getting dressed and ready for the day

  • Simple home tasks like making your bed, sweeping, or washing a floor

  • Opening a window for fresh air

  • Listening to the sounds of nature

  • Enjoying a cup of tea

  • Watching or listening to something with a positive message

  • Connecting with safe others for a word of encouragement

  • Savoring a healthy meal

  • Ordering necessities that you’ve been putting off

  • Accomplishing one tiny to-do list item

  • Spending time with pets

  • Getting enjoyable exercise

  • Sitting in the sunshine, or under a tree

  • Intentionally celebrating everything you do in your usual routine

  • Spiritual practices like prayer or meditation

  • Starting a new series on an app like Happify or Headspace

Make a note of each positive experience as you go through the day and consider setting a goal, like 10 or 20 tiny positive experiences throughout your day. When you make a positive experience list, it has a different effect than a gratitude list, which tends to focus more on what you have than what you feel. Gratitude lists can sometimes induce guilt or shame because we feel like we should have always been grateful for all those things.

In contrast, a list of positive experiences provides a record of things that make you feel even a little bit better throughout your day. The result is a feeling of celebration, as well as a list of ideas for what to do the next time you’re feeling out of sorts. For instance, as an INFJ I typically derive great joy from jumping back into a meaningful routine, while my INFP husband derives great joy from dreaming about future projects or watching an episode of anime.

Moderate Dysregulation and Tools for Coping

Sometimes life goes so bonkers that we miss the early signs of dysregulation altogether or are unable to tend to them. When this happens, we experience signs of more intense dysregulation, like:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns

  • Unhealthy eating patterns or cravings

  • Emergence of addictive behaviors

  • Exhaustion

  • Lashing out at others

  • Denying our own needs in order to please others

  • Withdrawing from others; isolation

  • Binge watching television  or mindlessly scrolling social media for hours

  • Obsessive worry

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

  • Inability to make simple decisions

  • Burnout

  • Emotions that feel out of control

At this stage of dysregulation, our minds have trouble making decisions, yet we are still aware of an intense emotional experience. So, instead of starting with simple positive experiences, we start by identifying and validating our emotions with self-compassion.

One of the most effective tools for emotional identification is a deck of emotion cards with illustrations. You can simply look at the cards and make two piles: one of emotions that resonate and another of emotions that don’t apply right now.

The cards from Feelings Unlimited are my favorite because they are color coded by the ‘feelings family’ and coordinate with The Color of Feelings Palette, which outlines the basic feelings families:

Scared: worried, weak, defensive, vulnerable, inadequate, numb, embarrassed, foolish, rejected, crazy, helpless, bewildered, abandoned, shocked, threatened, overwhelmed, paralyzed, confused, trapped

Angry: hurt, sarcastic, controlled, jealous, disgusted, offended, frustrated, resentful, irritated, cheated, devastated, furious, betrayed, bitter

Sad: regret, tired, inferior, worthless, stupid, cold, alone, guilty, bored, depressed, empty, shame, hopeless, humiliated, despair

Happy: connected, light-hearted, vivacious, jovial, enthusiastic, alive, creative, grateful, cheerful, joyful, content, hopeful, excited, thrilled

Free: friendly, forgiven, empowered, important, respected, sincere, open, complete, worthwhile, appreciated, loved, valued

Safe: cozy, protected, quiet, warm, encouraged, understood, confident, cherished, accepted, trusting, relaxed, secure, calm

These feelings families are complementary. The “free” family is complementary to the “angry” family, the “happy” family is complementary to the “sad” family, and the “safe” family is complementary to the “scared” family. This means that once you validate your current emotional experience, you can identify the complementary feeling family and choose to do something that helps you experience some of those emotions.

For instance, if you feel sad, worthless and alone after the loss of a job, you might look at the “happy” category of emotions and choose to call a friend to feel more connected, write a poem to feel more creative, and search for new job opportunities to feel more hopeful. While the sad emotions will still be there, the happy emotions will help to balance them out so you can experience greater regulation.

When in doubt, a mental health professional can help you tease out which actions could help you experience the greatest emotional relief. Tools like HeartMath HRV biofeedback, yoga, Qi Gong, meditation, breathing apps, and CBT apps might also be helpful for achieving regulating emotional shifts.

Intense Dysregulation and Tools for Coping

Once we are in a place of intense dysregulation, it feels impossible to make choices or even tease out what we’re feeling and how to find relief. Some signs of intense dysregulation include:

  • Emotional shutdown

  • Numbness

  • Loss of a sense of self

  • Scrambled thoughts

  • Uncontrollable emotional tyrades

  • Addictions in full swing

  • Being unable to engage

  • Staying in bed or disconnecting from life

  • Losing hours or days of time

  • Feeling unworthy or incapable, and acting on that

  • Intense hopelessness and helplessness

  • Limited verbal skills; inability to articulate what is wrong

  • Inability to complete simple tasks

Once we are in an intensely dysregulated state, it is vitally important to reach out for help, support, and establish safety. Human beings (and even our furry friends) co-regulate each other’s nervous systems. This means that simply being around someone who is well regulated will help bring you into a more regulated state, even if no specific modalities are used. This is the time to spend time with someone who is in a good place and to join in what they are doing. Even simple tasks like cooking or cleaning together can help your nervous system find the reset button so that you can identify emotions and have positive micro-experiences.

When co-regulation with a friend or family member is not quite enough, professional modalities and tools could help you begin to feel better. Some of these include:

  • Crisis hotlines

  • Support Groups

  • Individual therapy

  • Neurofeedback

  • Alpha-Stim neuromodulation for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and insomnia

  • Prescribed medication

  • Psychiatric service animals, if disabled

  • SomniResonance SR1 neuromodulation sleep device for insomnia

  • The Listening Program

  • Somatic experiencing

  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatment

  • Emotional freedom technique

Many of these tools, such as neurofeedback and Alpha-Stim, do not require you to revisit painful experiences and they also provide relief rather quickly so that you can get back to engaging with your life and experience joy again.

What to do When Someone Else is Dysregulated

Because human beings co-regulate each other’s nervous systems, living or working with someone who is struggling can be challenging and dysregulating for you. It might feel like a drain, or you might feel a desperate desire to rescue someone who seems to be drowning in their own intense emotions.

The best thing that you can do to help someone who is dysregulated is to maintain your own self-regulation, while setting healthy boundaries so that your nervous system doesn’t begin to fall into patterns of dysregulation. This means identifying early signs of dysregulation in yourself and nipping them in the bud. It might be tempting to feel guilty about caring for yourself, but when you maintain your own mental health, the other person’s nervous system often responds positively.

When the person who is struggling is still dysregulated despite your best efforts to provide support, validate their emotions, and encourage positive micro-experiences, it is important to refer them to a professional. As they get needed help, remember to practice healthy boundaries and avoid falling into patterns of over-care. This will empower you to maintain your own sense of regulation, for both your well-being and theirs. 

Anne Kinsey
Anne Kinsey is the nonprofit founder and executive director of Love Powered Life, as well as a Certified Trauma Recovery Coach, certified HRV biofeedback practitioner and neurofeedback geek. Anne hails from her rural North Carolina home office, where she resides with her husband and three children. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling and sitting by the beach, hot tea in one hand and delicious novel in the other.