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How to Deal with Overstimulation

Why emotional regulation matters and how highly sensitive men can improve it.

In my second blog post, I wanted to address the question of how to deal with quickly feeling overstimulated. This is something that the men I interviewed for my book The Highly Sensitive Man often described as one of their biggest challenges.

Having a very sensitive and reactive central nervous system means that highly sensitive men often become quickly overstimulated. They process internal stimuli more deeply (feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations) as well as external stimuli (people, noises, light, smells), which can quickly lead to feeling overwrought. This state of overstimulation can then manifest itself in the form of strong feelings, disparate thoughts, physical, mental, and emotional tension, and inner restlessness. This is often followed by exhaustion and tiredness because their nervous system has been running “on overdrive.”

The tendency to become overstimulated can’t be completely avoided, because it’s impossible to steer clear of all potentially challenging situations—be it a visit to a busy supermarket, your brother’s birthday party, giving a presentation at work, organizing or booking your next vacation, or an upcoming parents’ evening your kids’ school. All these situations can quickly feel overstimulating because they are accompanied by the processing of numerous internal and external stimuli. It is thus not possible to completely avoid overstimulation, not least because it would likely cause you to lead a very controlled and boring life.

In order to lead an active life, take risks, pursue life goals, and experience new things, it is sometimes worth accepting short bouts of overstimulation. And at the end of the day, although overstimulation feels unpleasant, it is only a problem for your health if you remain in a chronic state of overstimulation without ever giving your nervous system a break.

The challenge for someone who has a tendency to become overstimulated and to feel things very strongly—which are often experienced together—is learning to deal with these feelings whenever they arise. This means that highly sensitive men need to get much better at calming themselves down when they notice that they feel overstimulated, tense, or very emotional.

Emotional regulation can really help with this.

In the context of psychotherapy, emotional regulation is the ability to change and regulate your own feelings, particularly when these feelings are very intense and unpleasant. The goal here isn’t to not feel anything anymore or just to feel good, but rather to get better at tolerating our feelings and our emotional arousal so that we don’t feel helplessly controlled by them.

The following emotional regulation skills can help us deal better with overstimulation and strong feelings:

  • The ability to notice, differentiate, and name your emotions (“I feel angry,” “I feel upset,” “I feel cross”).
  • The ability to recognize triggers and maintaining factors for your emotions (“I feel… because…,” “Whenever I do…, then I feel…”).
  • The ability to influence the intensity, duration, and quality of emotions.
  • The development of mindfulness and acceptance when dealing with emotions (observing feelings before taking action, learning to tolerate feelings; instead of saying “I want/must/should not feel this way,” learning to say “I feel…, at the moment, and that’s OK” or “I feel…, and I’m going to keep observing this feeling until it changes”).
  • Learning to normalize emotions (“It’s normal and not a problem to feel like this,” “Other people feel like this in these sorts of situations”).
  • Learning to better recognize the connection between basic emotional needs and emotions (“I feel better at this moment because…,” “When I feel…, then I need…”).
  • When you do experience negative emotions, learning to be supportive and caring in relation to yourself, empathizing with yourself and confronting your own suffering or pain in a kind and compassionate way, just as you would with a friend (“I’m there for you,” “This isn’t easy for you,” “I can feel your pain,” “You’re not alone, I’m here with you,” “Tell me what’s wrong”).
  • Learning to form alternative, self-calming thoughts (“Stay calm,” “Take this slowly,” “One step at a time”).
  • The ability to make concrete changes to your behavior in different situations (i.e., consciously doing something differently or specifically doing something to calm yourself or to make the situation better or more tolerable for yourself).
  • The use of physical relaxation techniques (relaxing your body, muscles, and breathing when you’re feeling tense or stressed).
  • Getting better at using your imagination (for instance, recalling past events and situations that gave you strength and made you feel calm, relaxed, and secure, or recalling a calming location or a trusted person whom you associate with positive feelings and memories).

The skills we use to regulate our feelings—which we usually use completely automatically and unconsciously in our daily lives—are things that we learn very early on in life, as infants and children, through our contact with our parents. Our parents also present us with a direct model of how we might deal with our feelings, which we learn and internalize.

The good news is that whatever we experienced as children, whatever our model was, by consciously using the strategies outlined above, we can still strengthen and develop our ability to regulate and change our feelings in later life. At the same time, we also now know that deficits in emotional regulation, in terms of the way we perceive, designate, tolerate, understand, and modify our feelings, can cause and sustain psychological problems.

If you identify today as a highly sensitive man, then you were also a highly sensitive baby and little boy. And if you cried as a baby because, perhaps, you were overtired, then it was probably your parents or another guardian who (hopefully) tried to comfort you and calm you down. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but ideally, they did this by holding you in their arms, stroking you, speaking to you in a gentle voice, or singing or humming; they touched you or distracted you in order to help you calm down and reduce your emotional and physical tension.

And this is, in effect, exactly what you can do as a highly sensitive adult man when you find yourself in a state of emotional overstimulation. You wouldn’t have calmed down or stopped crying when you were a baby or a child if your parents had shouted at you, criticized you, or left you in a room on your own. So it’s vital that in difficult moments you are able to use emotional regulation to look after yourself and comfort yourself instead of criticizing your tendency to become quickly overstimulated and to feel things intensely (“Oh, here we go again!”). This only increases the tension you feel and your emotional arousal and doesn’t help you calm down more quickly.

Tom Falkenstein is a practicing cognitive behavioral psychotherapist. His book, The Highly Sensitive Man, is out now.

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