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Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Emotional Regulation and HSPs

Emotional regulations skills can help HSPs manage overwhelming feelings.

If we HSPs have a problem, we all agree it is over-stimulation. But I realize that emotion and empathy, the E in DOES (Depth of Processing, Over-stimulation, 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.”

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?

Emotional regulation 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

The Australian Journal of Psychology published a research paper titled, “Is the relationship between sensory-processing sensitivity and negative affect mediated by emotional regulation?” This study supports the idea that HSPs often struggle to regulate intense, negative emotions. (The research was done 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:

  1. Accept your feelings.
  2. Do not be ashamed of them.
  3. Believe you can cope as well as others do.
  4. Trust that your bad feelings will not last long.
  5. 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 considered, there might have been little association between negative affect, 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-sensitive world. Still, we can apply the above five strategies 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, at least at first, unconscious. So, you may have to recognize the underlying suppositions of these strategies first—for example, that you are ashamed of your negative feelings or that 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, it clearly 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. You might enjoy this blog posted a while back on our website that was written 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. Read the full blog post here.

Emotional Regulation Can Be Learned

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 them and can tolerate them. Just be sure to 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 strategies 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, considering credentials, reviews, and comments as you go. And remember that emotional regulation is 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.

Be Mindful of Distractions

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 for 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 empathetic friend may help.

Rest, Rest, Rest

The point is, our emotions come through our bodies, for better and worse. Often, we can change our emotions by changing our bodies, and our bodies are changed by our emotions. That’s why, 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, so he 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 about 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 that 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 perhaps remember that you can’t do much about it, given human nature. If it is about another needs, 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 work for you, the better off you are.

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.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.


About the Author

Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, The Highly Sensitive Person, and The Highly Sensitive Child.