Dysregulation & Male Survivors

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What is Dysregulation?

There are many forms of Dysregulation and how they affect a person. Dysregulation is often misdiagnosed and treated for other issues like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) instead of exploring or understanding the person as a sexual abuse survivor. Although these diagnoses and their prescriptions may help the individual for a time, they are not necessarily long-lasting solutions, which may lead the person to more confusion. 

According to Dr. Kelli Palfy, author of Men Too, a person suffering from Dysregulation cannot control their emotions or behavior within the typically accepted changes in emotional ability, including sadness, anger, irritability, frustration, etc. Sufferers may be impulsive and hyper-aroused one minute and then unemotional the next. Dysregulation is typically considered a childhood problem but now is being looked at as extending into adulthood, affecting interpersonal relationships, school performance, difficulties with work, and lifetime success. 

Many survivors have dissociated from the childhood trauma they experienced and may not have told anyone. They are confused about how they respond and react to simple daily stimuli. They may appear erratic or emotionally “unbalanced” and encouraged to change their attitude, which they cannot. 

Different types of Dysregulation

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Behavioral Dysregulation

Behavioral strategies that are harmful and can include (but are not limited to):

  • drinking alcohol to cope with problems 
  • binge eating
  • extreme social reassurance-seeking 
  • non-suicidal self-injuries (NSSI)
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    Cognitive Dysregulation

    Responding to stress by becoming hyper-vigilant or dissociating:

  • You might feel picked on, distrustful, suspicious, or that people are deliberately being mean to you—or 
  • You might feel spaced out and emotionally numb, like the people and things around you are unreal
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  • marked fluctuation of mood/mood swings
  • angry outbursts 
  • anxiety
  • depression 
  • substance abuse
  • suicidal thoughts
  • self-harm
  • other self-damaging behaviors
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    Interpersonal Dysregulation

  • Alternates between idealizing and devaluing close relationships 
  • You sometimes hate people close to you and want distance but feel dependent on them and others. 
  • These relationships can be stormy, with lots of ups and downs
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    Emotional Dysregulation

  • angry outbursts
  • anxiety, depression
  • substance abuse 
  • suicidal thoughts 
  • self-harm 
  • other self-damaging behaviors
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    Trauma Dysregulation

  • Trauma can have a long-term impact on your ability to regulate your emotions
  • trouble controlling your emotions  
  • easily overwhelmed
  • Who is mainly affected by Dysregulation?

    Children experiencing adversity are more likely to be emotionally reactive to stress and, therefore, unable to regulate emotionally, states D’Andrea et al. (2012). Hart et al. (2012) have identified that the area most affected by childhood maltreatment is the frontolimbic circuits. Undermodulated emotion (anxiety, hyperarousal, dysphoria) is connected to heightened amygdala activation and reduced prefrontal inhibitory activation. In contrast, overmodulated emotion (dissociation, emotional numbing) relates to extensive midline prefrontal inhibition of limbic activity (Lanius et al, 2010). 

    According to Rogers Behavioral Health, women are more likely to suffer from Dysregulation due to more intense emotions, rumination, and frequent environmental invalidation. This societal limitation demonstrates that females are more permitted to exhibit emotion than males. This explanation could determine why more females are affected by Dysregulation than males. 

    Society teaches females to ruminate or repetitively think and dwell on negative feelings and distress, which can contribute to the outward development of depression or anxiety. 

    Everyone experiences emotions, and Dysregulation can happen to anyone. Today Dysregulation is connected to childhood sexual abuse or other childhood trauma. Many diagnoses are Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, and PTSD. 

    Research deems that Dysregulation is not present at birth and is widely agreed to be a consequence of traumatic events (Beauchaine et al., 2015). Dysregulation can improve with age due to the wisdom and emotional maturity one gains. With proper professional help, one can develop the ability to regulate emotions like feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. 

     Close personal contact is often related to issues of attachment Family members, children, loved ones, ex-loved ones, and imbalances of power are common dysregulation triggers. 

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    How does Dysregulation affect males?

    Like many issues dealing with sexually abused males, Dysregulation affects each male differently. And since males are more reluctant to report or disclose sexual abuse, research is focused more on females. 

    According to Rogers Behavioral Health, chronic emotional Dysregulation is the main focus of borderline personality disorder, representing over 50% of people psychiatrically hospitalized and 4-6% of the general population. 

    Emotional Dysregulation affects female teens more than males since society disapproves of male displays of emotion, especially sexually abused men. But substance use and borderline personality disorder are more evident in males than females.  

    Most children and teens silently deal with Dysregulation, especially males, since they never learn to handle or deal with emotions. Schools, physicians, and parents are often too eager to diagnose Dysregulation as a symptom that can be easily remedied with medication and never go far enough to determine the cause.

    It seems easier to medicate than to investigate. 

    Since males have a more challenging time reporting sexual abuse, let alone the emotional side of the trauma, they tend to forge ahead on their own and find ways to ease the building of emotional pressure. They may resort to acting out, migrating to high-risk groups, attempting high-risk activities, experimenting with drugs, and other destructive actions.  

    How did Dysregulation affect me?

    While experiencing sexual abuse throughout my high school years, I was not aware of dysregulating or understanding the effects as they were happening. In hindsight, I can recognize several examples of Dysregulation and how I tried to release the built-up emotional pressure. 

    I was a teen afraid of losing control or appearing out of control, so I shied away from drugs and alcohol. I focused on my path to the Olympics; there were certain things I could not do that would jeopardize that dream.  

    One example of Dysregulation was when I felt I could not contain the pressure any longer, I would shout out as loud as I could, wherever I was, a loud grunt noise or the f-bomb. My goal was to get someone to ask me what was wrong. I was not allowed to tell anyone about the abuse, but I figured if someone would directly ask me, I was invited and thus I was required to explain it to them. No one ever did.  

    As I entered my first year of college as an athlete and academic scholar in pre-med, I never had the proper professional help. I found myself repeating habits that put me back into similar situations. I became extremely moody and created a secret self, trying desperately to figure out my sexual orientation and understand why the abuse had happened for so long. I found myself seeking out places that would put me back into the abusive scenario without realizing why. I would find myself in areas where I was unsure I remembered how I got there. I was numb and living in a cloud. I was only sure of diving, practices, and competitions, but my school work and personal life suffered. I nearly failed out of school until I transferred to the theatre department.  

    Dysregulation presents complications with relationships, work, social settings, and self-esteem still today in my life. 

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    What are ways to identify Dysregulation?

    Research is tying Dysregulation to childhood sexual abuse, childhood trauma, neglect, and traumatic brain injuries. Chronic low levels of familial, social, and environmental invalidation can exacerbate emotional Dysregulation for some individuals and be overlooked entirely and assumed as depression or anxiety disorders. 

    Male survivors of CSA often internalize their stressful experiences by self-blaming and avoidance to regulate emotions in the short term. In contrast, long-term emotional regulation affects active goal-setting, problem-solving methods, seeking practical and social support, and increasing emotional distress (Krause-Utz, 2021). Self-blame, shame, embarrassment, social stigmas, toxic masculinity, etc., can contribute to depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation later in life. 

    Many males have experienced a sense of loss of self and will withdraw and isolate due to the inability to manage and control the building pressure of emotions. If you notice someone changing their typical characteristics dramatically, inquire and check in with them. Males tend not to express their feelings and are likely less able to communicate their feelings. Be patient and encourage them that they are not alone.  

    What are some treatments for Dysregulation?

    Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is usually a traditional outpatient modality. Still, it may be used in inpatient, residential, and other specialized outpatient treatments such as Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP) and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). 

    Psychological Care and Healing Center suggests that combining Dialectical Behavior Therapy and activities can help a person dealing with emotional Dysregulation learn ways to manage emotions and effectively lead a more productive life.

    Dr. Kelli Palfy summarizes, “In late teens and adulthood, those who have not acquired the skill of self-regulation, and who have a diminished view of themselves, others and the world, may be susceptible to engage in substance use. Dysregulated people often turn to substances for comfort. Living in states of self-loathing, fear, distrust, and dysregulation would exhaust anyone. Understandably, drug users are seeking to have a break from these ways of existing.”

    Although males are taught not to seek help, Dysregulation is a condition that needs professional care. Take the time to locate the best professional service for you, and remember they need to tailor the service to your unique needs. 

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    About the Author:

    John-Michael Lander is a Survivor, Advocate & Public Speaker

    He is also the founder of An Athlete's Silence: www.anathletessilence.com

    Published by SurvivorSpace, an initiative of Zero Abuse Project