Emotional regulation is a topic of great importance to highly sensitive people as our personality trait works through a triggering of emotions leading to more elaborate processing of all stimuli. To say HSPs are emotional beings is to dramatically understate the case. HSPs are DEEPLY emotional, passionate, creative people with a broader range of possible behaviors than in those without the trait. I present to you a repost of Dr. Elaine Aron discussing the topic of emotional regulation and HSPs. In her brief article she explains some of the ways we have learned to experience emotions and cope with them, particularly negative emotions. Dr. Aron advocates for an experimental approach in developing and adopting techniques of emotion regulation tailored to our individual needs and situations. She is a long-time advocate for transcendental mediation (TM), which involves the use of a mantra or sound repeated for 15-20 minutes per day promoting calm, peace, and self-development.
I suggest a consideration and exploration of the techniques contained in Dr. Aron’s article plus working to develop a deeper understanding of working with our emotions in a social context through emotional storytelling. Psychologist James Pennebaker developed a method of utilizing emotional storytelling through a dedicated 15 minute a day writing exercise (focusing on traumatic experiences or strong negative emotions) that has been shown to be highly effective in people who prefer to use an emotion approach style of coping in dealing with problems. HSPs very likely fit this paradigm well as we often experience strong emotions (positive and negative) and may often feel overwhelmed by their strength and duration. We also seem to prefer to directly address our emotions rather than suppress them in favor of goal-oriented coping.
Another technique I advocate is to engage other trusted individuals in a form of post-processing of the event. Explain the situation and how it is making you feel (especially noting the exact emotion whether that be fear, anger, sadness, etc.) and allow that other person to serve as an impartial other whose job is to help you determine if you’re overreacting (or perhaps reacting appropriately) and, if so, if the overreaction fits the situation. There are times in life where difficult situations push anyone to the limits of emotional excitation. We highly sensitive people, though, experience deep emotions more profoundly and more easily than do others. By engaging in post-processing with a trusted, impartial other we may soften the intensity of an emotion or at least validate within ourselves that the emotion is appropriate, while acknowledging that it will pass in time. It is the intensity and ease with which we HSPs experience strong emotions that mark us as unique than those without the trait.
It is worth keeping in mind that the goal of emotional regulation is not to suppress emotion, rather it is to be able to manage emotions appropriately at a level where they are neither overwhelming nor suppressed. Indeed, it is important to allow ourselves to experience an emotion when we are having it; to allow our bodies to feel it and guide us in negotiating how best to cope with it. It’s my sense that many of us were never taught (or never had appropriate emotional regulation modeled for us) how to process or experience emotions. Moreover, and much to our detriment, we were taught to suppress or deny emotions (especially for males). Yet, here we are moving through life more deeply attuned to the affective states of others, more keenly aware of subtle emotions, and sometimes more easily troubled by strong negative emotions (anger, fear, disgust, etc.) while living in societies that often discourage focusing on internal states in favor of the external world of distractions. Though the external world is certainly filled with potential delights and life-affirming experiences it is through developing and maintaining an effective set of emotional coping mechanisms that we are able to stay balanced, calm, and living from a center of relative peace where joy may be experienced and savored.
– Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. – author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career
Emotional Regulation and HSPs
Dr. Elaine Aron
“If we HSPs have a problem, we all agree it is overstimulation. But I realize that emotion and empathy, the E in DOES (Depth of Processing, Overstimulation, Emotionally responsive/Empathy, and Sensitive to Subtle), while not at all an inherent problem, can be an even bigger issue for HSPs, “for better and for worse.”
I have written often about emotion, but perhaps not enough. We feel so intensely. It is part of why we process everything very deeply—we are more motivated to think about things by our stronger feelings of curiosity, fear, joy, anger, or whatever. But this intensity can be overwhelming, especially when we have negative feelings. That’s why we need to learn emotional regulation skills.
What is emotional regulation? It is a fancy term for something simple that we all do, which is to consciously or unconsciously influence what emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express them. Feel in a bad mood? Go for a walk. Feel silly but it’s not appropriate to laugh? Silence that chuckle.
Can we be more skillful at it? As with almost any skill, always. But note that the definition of emotional regulation is that a great deal of it is unconscious. That means it was usually learned in childhood or under duress. For example, when we are upset we may feel it is intolerable without knowing why, but maybe it is because as a small child we were left without help when we were having overwhelming emotions. Or we saw the adults around us being overwhelmed by their emotions, unable to control themselves at all, so why would we think we could do it?
On the other hand, many HSPs learned wonderful emotional regulation as children from their parents. These, too, are unconscious skills. Their skill may drive those having trouble to envy these others for their good moods and lack of anxiety. But whichever kind you are, you are you. You have to play the cards you were dealt, not those of someone else with better luck, so far. Likewise, if you have good cards, it is not fair to say to those with bad ones that they aren’t very good at the game. Luck is a huge component. But we can all do better.
HSPs Tend to Fail to Use Certain Strategies
As it happens, a research paper was just published in the Australian Journal of Psychology on “Is the relationship between sensory-processing sensitivity and negative affect mediated by emotional regulation?” (It is by Brindle, Moulding, Bakker, and Nedeljkovic, and you can read the abstract here.)
First, consistent with other research, these researchers found that HSPs are more aware of and have more negative emotions–depression, anxiety, feeling very stressed–than other people. Second, the answer to the title of their article and the important finding for you was that among many strategies that help everyone regulate and thus reduce their negative emotions, HSPs tend to do certain ones less. So, if you want to boost your emotional regulation, increase these five:
- Accept your feelings.
- Do not be ashamed of them.
- Believe you can cope as well as others do.
- Trust that your bad feelings will not last long.
- Assume there’s hope–you can do something about your bad feelings eventually.
Why We Might Have Trouble with these Five
A huge factor causing HSPs to have trouble with these five, as the researchers found, is that we simply are more aware of negative feelings (of all feelings, but they did not measure positive ones). Perhaps some of us have had so many bad experiences that the typical strategies do not work. Maybe our negative feelings do last a longer time, darn it, and we cannot change them! Maybe these “attitudes” are just how it is for some of us, especially those who did not learn regulation strategies while young. The researchers did not look at the effect of the history of past negative experiences, especially in childhood, or the work one has done to heal these. If that had been taken into account, there might have been little association between negative effect, especially depression, and being an HSP.
On the other hand, HSPs tend to be higher on most measures of anxiety and being stressed, given the nature of the questions. Whatever our past, we worry (and rejoice and feel gratitude) more than others, and many of us are stressed by trying to manage in a non-HSP world. Still, we can apply the above five very well to anxiety and feeling stressed.
This is Not Your Fault, but There Are Things You Can Do
Very often the failure to use those five is, again, at least at first unconscious. So you may have to recognize these first—for example that you are ashamed of your negative feelings or it seems to you that they will go on forever. So perhaps just reading this will help to make these attitudes more conscious and available for you to change. In particular, clearly it helps to replace a sense of defeat with a little hope and confidence when looking for and applying new strategies. Perhaps the best place to begin is talking specifically to other HSPs who have truly struggled yet found answers. Hence our other blog post today, by a friend and colleague, one of the first HS men I ever knew well, who has found his own terribly important path through his lifelong depression and anxiety.
The bottom line is that emotional regulation can be learned. You can begin with self-help, unless you are having suicidal thoughts. Then you need help right away. Starting there, at the extreme, one way to regulate emotions that we often forget is through medications—it’s really okay if you need to and tolerate them. Just find a psychiatrist who is kind and understands high sensitivity, at least as soon as you explain it. Another way to begin is to see a good psychotherapist familiar with HSPs, who will help you find the best strategy for regulating your emotions, and if the first ones do not work, help you explore why and find new ones.
If you begin with self-help, you could learn meditation, which can dramatically help with depression. Here’s a recent testimony on Transcendental Meditation (TM) helping depression.
Continuing with “on your own,” you can search the internet for emotional regulation strategies (this one from the U.K. is not bad). You can read. I’ve been told that a good book for HSPs on anxiety is Dancing with Fear by Foxman. But there are so many books and websites on reducing anxiety, depression, stress, and being happy that I cannot begin to review them here. Just explore. But do consider credentials and read reviews and comments. And remember that emotional regulation is actually a very individual matter. Try a variety of methods, ignore the heavy sales pitches, and watch for actual results. Do not feel hopeless or ashamed if something does not work for you. You are different; you are an HSP and unique as well.
Emotion Regulation for Me and You
I suppose I am writing about emotion also because, for reasons I will not dwell on here, I have been truly inundated by intense emotions since last April. Naturally I have some methods for coping that I will share, as I shared Alanis’s last month. I want you to see that we are all individuals in the tools we have at hand.
One method of emotional reaction that scientists praise is distracting yourself through thinking about other things, especially turning to your work. I am not always so sure about this method. Yes, my emotions fade away when I start writing, researching an idea, or just reading research (I have to admit I love Scientific American). However, I’ve learned it’s not a great method in the long run because I tire out my brain, and the brain uses a great deal of bodily energy. Once I am tired, I have less tolerance of my negative emotions. So watch out for the kinds of distractions you use. Choose ones that are not highly depleting. Maybe funny TV or movies are not so bad. If you are an introvert, once you are tired, spending time with friends can also be depleting, although quiet time with an empathic friend can also help.
Rest, Rest, Rest
The point is, our emotions come through our bodies, for better and worse. Often we can change our emotions through changing our bodies, and our bodies are changed by our emotions. That’s why, again, I recommend a very restful type of meditation such as TM (transcendental meditation), downtime in general, time in nature, time in or near water, and plenty of sleep. These can change the body quickly. I have a friend who told me that recently he felt grumpy and just terrible, took a half-hour nap, and woke up feeling great! Rest is the basis of activity. Everything we think and do is determined by our state of consciousness, from tired and terrible to fully aware and just plain brilliant. These states change according to how we treat our bodies.
Indeed I like Rilke’s line, “no feeling is final.” In a moment, you are going to read his powerful poetical teaching, emotional regulation (I am pretty sure he was an HSP). But for now, the lesson is that usually a good night’s sleep improves things. If not, at least with a fresh mind you are better able to understand the reason for extreme negative emotions. Some feelings are inevitable, such as grief over a loss or fear of a truly threatening event, and only time will help. But many times we must look deeply into our complexes in order to bring our emotions under control or at least to tolerate them. I’ve written about complexes mostly in my books, the Workbook, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, and especially The Undervalued Self, as “emotional schemas.” A clear mind helps in this.
Above all, after a rest we can often step back and see the big picture. Maybe the big picture comes from going out and looking at the stars, or seeing what troubles you now will not be important a year from now. If it is a problem in our world, remember that others are working on this too; or even that you can’t do much about it, given human nature. If it is about another’s need, maybe you just can’t help, but someone else can. If someone has hurt your feelings, maybe the person meant well but does not have the bigger picture of you.”
Rest does not always work, of course. Nothing always works. But the more ideas you have for emotional regulation that works for you, the better off you are. I will continue this in a future post. Now to the poetic solution:
“Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Book of Hours, I 59
(Original post from DR. Aron at http://hsperson.com/emotional-regulation-and-hsps/)