Emotion Vulnerability


This article is adapted from the DBT Model of Emotion Regulation (Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. 1993). Marsha Linehan is the originator of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington.

The concept of Emotion Vulnerability describes how some of us are physiologically (biologically) wired to have a more sensitive temperament. The three components of Emotion Vulnerability are:

1. Heightened Emotional Sensitivity
2. Heightened Emotional Reactivity
3. Slow Return to Baseline.

1. Emotional Sensitivity

Emotional Sensitivity refers to:
    •Being more sensitive to emotional stimuli.
    •Being more likely to detect subtle emotional information in the environment that
      others don’t even notice.
    •Having a low threshold for emotional reaction and, subsequently, experiencing emotions
    much more often
than others. Emotions seem to hit for no reason, from out of the blue.

Imagine an emotion thermometer (with a scale of 1 to 100). An individual who is not emotionally sensitive may, for example, sit at a baseline of 10. An individual who is emotionally sensitive may, for example, sit at a higher baseline (e.g., 20 or 30 or 40).

2. Emotional Reactivity

Emotional Reactivity refers to:
    •Having extreme emotional reactions.
    •Having intense emotions. Emotions tend to hit like a ton of bricks.

If we go back to the concept of an emotion thermometer (with a scale of 1 to 100), emotional intensity and reactivity means moving up the emotion thermometer scale steeply and quickly, often finding oneself in an intense Emotion Mind state (the “red zone”), which can disrupt the ability to think and the ability to self soothe.

3. Slow Return to Baseline

Slow Return to Baseline refers to:
    •Having long lasting emotional reactions.
    •Having a hard time returning to baseline.

During this long lasting, intense Emotion Mind state, the world is viewed through “emotion glasses”, narrowing perceptions and focusing more on things that affirm current emotions. Interpretation and memories of events are more likely to be biased (judgment based) and less likely to be fact based. These biased, narrow perceptions then contribute to maintaining a physiologically and emotionally intense state of arousal. Slow return to baseline also contributes to high sensitivity to the next emotional stimulus.


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