What to Do When Your Emotions Overwhelm You

Do you think you might be hyper sensitive?

Posted Nov 02, 2015

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

The other day a reader of this column who enjoyed my article on forgiveness, How Do You Forgive Even When It Feels Impossible messaged me seeking advice. She wrote:

I came upon your article about forgiveness and I was hoping you'd post some more articles about emotions for people who are sensitive. A few of my friends backstabbed me and I just can't get over it. I'm generally a sensitive person and I can't control any of my emotions. I get hurt easily and never let it go. I overanalyze the issue and keep repeating the entire thing in my mind. I'd really appreciate it if you could write an article about controlling emotions.

-Ashley

Trying to control your emotions doesn't work because it can't work. When you go out in the world and interact with people, turn on the radio or scroll through your Facebook feed, you are going to be confronted with things that make you feel. You will have an emotional response because you're human.

You can't control how you feel; the only thing you can control is how you respond to your feelings.  

When you're highly sensitive and someone says or does something hurtful, you feel a rush of emotions like a wave has cracked over your head. In the sea, fighting and thrashing against the water will exhaust you and you could drown. There's a reason we have the phrase "go with the flow." If you want to keep yourself from drowning in your emotions, you must learn to relax and stop fighting them.

If you want the freedom to choose your response, you must be present in the moment. To learn to be present, you must practice mindfulness.  Mindfulness is about waking up, being aware, and participating consciously in your experiences as they happen.

The next time you feel a wave of emotions coming, try to take slow, deep breaths in through your nose, out through your mouth. Grip the opposite forearm in each hand and knead your skin. The goal is to stay in your body so you won't retreat into your head where you'll ruminate.

Next, repeat to yourself something comforting to remind you that emotions don't need to be feared. For instance, I've always loved this Rainer Maria Rilke quote from his Book of Hours:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

When you can stay calm and present in the moment, you give yourself time to choose how to react. Remember: feeling the emotion isn't the same thing as reacting to it. In my role as a marriage and family therapist and anger management specialist, I see many patients who mistake their angry response for anger. Throwing a vase isn't anger; it's an angry response. The boiling feeling inside your body that precedes the vase throwing is the anger.

As someone who is highly sensitive, you must learn how to make space between the emotion in your body and the action you take in response to that bodily feeling.

When you learn how to separate your emotions from your emotional responses you'll have the freedom to talk to your friends about how they've hurt you in a calm, cool-headed manner. If they continue to upset you even after you've done all this hard work on yourself and you've tried to speak to them constructively, it's time to decide if you can forgive them and if you want them in your life. Like they say, you can't choose your family but you can choose your friends. If your friends don't appreciate the happy, emotionally healthy new you, they don't deserve you.  

If you're interested in learning more about how to mindfully explore your emotions, please visit my website and sign up for my newsletter.  You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook.