(Image from http://ecurrent.fit.edu/files/2014/01/emotion-regulation.jpg)
Highly Sensitive People tend to experience negative emotions with a special kind of intensity. It’s one of the downsides of having such a keen sense of self-awareness. When the emotion sets in, HSP tend to report a sense that the feeling will last forever. Ironically, HSP tend to also have a lower sense that they can do something to impact it once it sets in (even though, in reality, their sensitivity probably puts them in a position to be particularly effective in this way).
If you are a highly sensitive person, below are some strategies that you can implement to improve your capacity in emotionally charged situations.
- Accept your feelings. One thing highly sensitive people seem to struggle with is this idea that the emotion is wrong. They have a sense that they really shouldn’t be sad. Its as though the emotion is a kind of failure. So, they try to fight the emotion. Which, of course, doesn’t work (shocking). A better plan would simply be to see the feeling as a natural part of the emotional spectrum. Would you like to be feeling something other than pissed off? Sure. That’s okay. But it’s also okay that you are angry right now. Pushing it away will only make the whole thing last longer. What you resist, persists.
- Do not be ashamed of the feeling as it arises. This is something I definitely struggle with. If I’m starting to feel grumpy. Angry. Anxious. Sad…it brings on a sense of shame. It’s a part of me I would rather override. There is the fear that if anyone were to see this side of me, it would be viewed as a weakness. It would seem crazy. Maybe I am crazy. And, of course, shame does no one any favors. If Brene Brown has taught us nothing, she has made clear that shame is not a helpful response to any situation. Part of this is linked back with highly sensitive people’s higher rates of perfectionism. If I am having an uncomfortable emotion, that means I have flaws. And to be flawed is to be undeserving of affection. A better way of responding would be to treat yourself the same way you would treat a friend. Do you think your loved ones are less lovable when they are in pain? Probably not. What would you tell them?
- Believe you can cope as well as others do. When these intense feelings come on, sometimes if feels so big that it’s far outside of my hands. And when I look around, I don’t see anyone else being paralyzed by a lousy mood. That further compounds the problem. If they aren’t buckling, that must mean I am just less capable than they are. Weaker. But that isn’t true. Everyone has their respective struggles. And most people are hiding their challenges and vulnerabilities as protectively as you might be hiding yours.
- Remember…It’s temporary. I am definitely guilty, here. When I start to feel myself slipping into an especially dark place, it really does feel as though that sensation will last forever. Intellectually, I know that doesn’t make any sense. But emotionally, I feel like it will never end. The area in my life that is challenged most by this is my relationship. If I am upset with my beloved, a shadow can fall over my entire perspective of the relationship overall. Perhaps it will always be like this? Maybe I should get out now before its too late and we make each other miserable forever! But then…it passes. The intensity wanes. We make up. Life goes on. It’s important to remember that these emotions are valid…but they are also very likely temporary.
- Remind yourself that you are capable of influencing your environment, changing the situation and surviving the challenge. When I am spinning out of control, I see myself as being powerless. It feels like I’m getting hijacked. But at the end of the day, you and I really can do something to help ourselves. We can’t control our emotions or the circumstances that helped foster them. But we can influence them. We do that by tapping into emotional regulation strategies. For example…
- Reconnect with your body (get out of your head!). When feeling anxious, try picking up the pace of your body to match the pace of your thoughts. If your heart is racing and your mind is spinning, rather than try and force everything to slow down, it can often be best to first speed things up. Go for a brisk walk. Or run. Do some pushups. It doesn’t matter. Just anything to get your body moving. It helps burn off some of the adrenaline that is coursing through your veins. And once your body matches your mind…that can be the time when you gradually start to slow the process back down. Can’t move? That’s okay. Try power poses. This is real, folks. According to research…even changing the way you sit can change your mental state. It impacts us on a physiological level.
- Make sure you have an outlet. Whether it’s writing, painting, podcasting, singing or under-water basket weaving…highly sensitive people tend to fair best in challenging emotional states when they have an outlet to move through the emotion. Andy Mort, an HSP, artist, musician and popular podcaster stresses this continuously. We feel things intensely. That intensity is best served being put to use in the form of something constructive and moving. Some of the most beautiful works of art have come from the ashes of pain.
- Arrange your environment to support your body’s rhythms. HSP fair best when they have go-to places they can count on to recharge. They also thrive with a regular routine. Try to make your bedroom a peaceful place to retreat to. That will help with rest and sleep. In the winter months, keep a full spectrum light around for early morning hours to prevent SAD (seasonal affective disorder). At your desk at work, try to beautify it. Keep lavender essential oils with you to help sooth you in challenging situations. Cary earphones with you so that you can reach for soft music or a guided meditation. In other words – be proactive and do what you can to keep your environment supportive to you.
- Balance your blood sugar. There is a bumper sticker I saw, recently, that read “I’m sorry about what I said when I was hungry.” I’m convinced it was authored by an HSP. Highly sensitive people seem to be particularly sensitive to the ups and downs of their blood sugar. They are the ones most likely able to report their hunger and satiety levels with acute accuracy. That’s not necessarily true for every HSP. It’s just an observation made amongst many. If you’re noticing yourself get foggy-brained and cranky…check your hunger levels. And for the love of all that is holy…do NOT engage in any difficult conversations with any other human beings if you are hungry. NOTHING good will come of that. Trust me. (Unless the difficult conversation is “where should we eat?”
- Develop a mindfulness based practice. It can be meditation. Deep breathing. Yoga. Doesn’t matter. The point is that you want to set up a practice that helps you develop the skill of observing your thoughts from a distance. Think of it this way — when your emotions get triggered, you’re essentially getting hijacked. It’s as though your mind has fallen into a rapidly moving river and you are getting swept down the current. Having some form of a mindfulness based practice is the equivalent of pulling yourself out of the river so that you can take a look at the current of your thoughts from the safety of a bank.
Highly sensitive people can be delightful to be around when they are in a good space. They tend to fully embody gratitude, joy, and love in such a way that it makes those around them feel invigorated and appreciated. But if the highs are that high, you need to know that the lows are going to be that low. Your job isn’t to force the lows to go away. Those lows are a part of you. They are as important and valuable as the highs. Having said that – they are painful, and the danger is that if you don’t develop tools to cope with it, you can get trapped by it.
Treat your own self the same way you might treat a good friend during challenging times – be the friend to yourself that you are to others…and you’ll be just fine.