Affect dysregulation, also known as emotional dysregulation, refers to difficulty regulating or “controlling” one’s emotional responses and behaviors. Affect dysregulation can be seen in both the ease with which someone’s mood changes and the intensity of that mood change. For example, individuals who have difficulties with affect regulation will regularly have “mood swings” where they will very quickly become angry, sad, or anxious (or happy, but for most individuals with affect dysregulation problems, the more aversive emotions are more common) with little to no warning. These individuals will also have exaggerated emotional responses, so that not only do they become sad, anxious, or angry fairly suddenly, but the intensity of that emotion appears to be far in excess of what would be expected in that situation. For example, they might yell and scream because they have to wait for a table at a restaurant or sob because a friend didn’t invite them to a movie.
All people have occasional over-reactions, but for people with affect dysregulation problems, these extreme emotional responses are common and cause significant difficulties in their life. Their affect dysregulation can include aggressive behavior outbursts such as breaking or throwing objects, intentionally hurting themselves or others, and at the extreme, attempts to kill themselves or others. In addition, their mood swings and over-responding can lead to behavioral problems and interfere with their social interactions and relationships at home, in school, or at place of employment. In our research, we are trying to better understand the biological, psychological (cognitive-affective), and environmental mechanisms underlying difficulties in affect regulation. To do this we look at affect dysregulation in two ways. We examine it as a general construct present in all individuals on a continuum from very mild to very severe. We also examine specific groups that are identified by their problems with affect dysregulation, including individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED).
Because of our interest in aggression, self-aggression and emotion dysregulation, several of our studies include individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder or “BPD”. BPD is a psychological disorder that is characterized by frequent mood shifts (often to anger or sadness), problems with relationships, unstable sense of self, and impulsive, sometimes self-destructive behavior. About 1 in 50 people have BPD, with the majority of these individuals being women. Though not all individuals with BPD try to hurt themselves, there is a high rate of self-injury and suicide attempts among those with BPD. Dialectical Behavior therapy, a form of psychotherapy that includes both individual and group therapy, has been shown to help improve some of the symptoms of BPD. Other treatments include medication for the mood and anger problems often associated with BPD. If you think you may have BPD, take this quiz:
A. Do you regularly have mood swings where you go from feeling okay to feeling very angry, sad or anxious?
B. Are your relationships very rocky, with lots of ups and downs?
C. Are you very sensitive to the possibility of someone you care about leaving you?
D. Does your sense of who you are (e.g., your values, goals, desires) change often?
E. Are you often angry or aggressive?
F. Do you often act impulsively (e.g., overspending, drug/alcohol use, reckless driving, binge eating)?
G. Do you often feel empty - like a there is void in your life that you can't fill?
H. Have you ever done anything to intentionally hurt yourself?
I. When you are stressed out, do you get paranoid or have odd sensory experiences?
If you answered yes to four or more of these questions, you may meet criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. If you are interested in participating in our research on BPD, visit our Current Studies page.
To learn more about BPD, click on these links:
NIHM Borderline Personality Disorder
NAMI Borderline Personality Disorder
Some of our research includes asking people to answer a short (less than 5 minute) phone survey several times a day. This method of collecting information is called Ecological Momentary Assessment or “EMA” (It is also known as experience sampling). EMA is a method of gathering data developed to assess emotions, behaviors, and other phenomena at or near the moment they occur in natural settings. This leads to more accurate reporting of feelings and behaviors and less biases that commonly occur when asking people to remember what happened days, or weeks earlier. As an example, if we ask you if you have been in any arguments in the past week (traditional questionnaire), you many remember two arguments. But if we call you and ask you if you have been in any arguments in the past few hours, and do this several times a day (EMA), we might find out you were actually in 5 arguments.
To learn more about EMA, click on this link:
4Researchers Ecological Momentary Assesment
functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), also called a “brain scan”, is a type of specialized MRI scan that is able to “look” at changes in brain activity. It does this by using a very strong magnet to pick up on small differences in the amount of blood that is sent to “active” parts of the brain. This is called the “hemodynamic response.” You cannot sense the magnet; in fact, you will only know the machine is working because of the noise it makes during scanning. fMRI is a non-invasive way to learn exactly what parts of the brain are active during tasks and how the area and amount of activation can change depending on the task and or the individual. For our research, we usually use fMRI either to look at differences in brain activation across groups of people (e.g., aggressive vs. non-aggressive) or to see how people in the same group differ after a change is made (e.g., looking at aggressive individuals before and after psychotherapy).
For most people fMRI is a very safe procedure, but because the MRI chamber is basically a huge magnet, some individuals (e.g., those who have metal in their body) should not have an fMRI scan. To ensure your safety, as a part of our screening process for any study that involves fMRI, we will ask about all of the medical condition that would be contraindicated for undergoing an fMRI scan. Also, because the magnet surrounds your head and you are fairly immobilized, individuals with claustrophobia may not be able to tolerate having an fMRI scan. For most others, the experience initially feels a little “weird”, but they quickly adapt.
To learn more about fMRI, click on these links:
BMC - What is fMRI?
Martinos Center for Biological Imaging - Imaging Technologies
Some of our studies talk about recruiting “healthy volunteers.” This term, though often is used in psychology and psychiatry research, can be vague and confusing. The exact definition of a healthy volunteer varies from research lab to research lab, but in general a “healthy volunteer” usually means someone who does not have a diagnosable psychological disorder, is not on any psychotropic medication, and does not have any serious systemic /neurological illness. The reason for this is because “healthy volunteers” are often used to compare against a group of individuals with a psychological or neurological disorder in order to see how the latter group is different from the “typical” person. If you think you might be a healthy volunteer and are interested in participating in our research studies, visit our Current Studies page.
One of our primary areas of interest is increasing our understanding and improving our treatment of anger and aggression. To do this we often study individuals with Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Intermittent Explosive Disorder or “IED” is a psychological disorder that is characterized by recurrent acts of aggression brought about by inability to control one’s anger. The aggressive behavior can be verbal, such as heated arguments, or physical, such as breaking property, and shoving, kicking or otherwise hitting someone. The aggressive behavior is out of proportion to the provocation (e.g., slapping someone because they told you to be quiet) and is distressing or otherwise has led to problems in some area of the person’s life.
Though initially thought to be rare, recent studies suggest that 1 out of every 25 individuals have IED, with it being slightly more common in men. IED has significant consequences for both the individual with IED and those around him or her. Aggressive outbursts for the average individual with IED result in 2-3 medical visits and about $1600 in property damage over the course of their life. Personal and professional relationships are often strained by the individual’s anger and aggressive outbursts, and there is some suggestion that IED is associated with several serious negative health consequences. If you think you have IED, take this quiz:
A. Do you routinely get into 2 or more heated arguments a week?
B. Have you been so angry in the past year that you hit something or someone on 3 or more occasions?
If you said yes to either A or B then continue.
C. After you have calmed down, do you often look back and think that you may have over-reacted and/or have others often suggested you over-reacted?
D. Are you bothered by your aggression and /or have your aggressive outbursts caused a strain on any of your relationships (work, friends, and family)?
If you answered yes to either A or B and also answered yes to C and D, then there is a good chance you meet criteria for IED. If you are interested in getting evaluated and/or treatment for IED, or are otherwise participating in our research on IED, visit our Current Studies page.
To learn more about IED and/or to see some of our articles on the etiology and treatment of IED, click the links below.
NIMH - Intermittent Explosive Disorder Affects Up To 16 Millon Americans
CNN Health - Intermittent Expolsive Disorder