Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2013
“Emotional regulation” is a fancy psychological term that refers to any method that you might try, consciously or not, to change the otherwise spontaneous flow of your emotions. By this definition, you might want to increase, prolong, or decrease a feeling. Because the human brain is designed to do this quite well, and the HSP’s brain even more so, you already know quite a bit about emotional regulation, just by having lived awhile. But it never hurts to make it more conscious.
Emotional regulation is a broad topic, as almost anything can increase, prolong, or shorten an emotion. To increase or prolong an emotion, mostly we need to continue to think about or stay mentally or physically near what started it. Keep mulling it over. It also helps to be feeling it with someone else who also wants to increase or prolong it, as when we are laughing together or crying together. The most familiar ways for decreasing emotions mentally are distraction and redirecting or reframing your thoughts about what is happening. Almost any physical change, which changes your bodily state, changes your emotions: meditation, exercise, eating, drinking or taking other “mood altering” medications and substances. You can and do use social means as well: Telling someone else how you feel often decreases the feeling in the long run, but so does deliberately going out among people with whom you habitually hide your deeper feelings. It’s a long list, but since stopping certain emotions is frequently our desire, there are always more tricks to learn and we’ll get to a few.
HSPs and Emotions
HSPs’ emotional life is a huge subject, as we feel things more deeply than others. I have written a great deal about emotions in these newsletters. For example, in the following Comfort Zone articles: HSPs Have Stronger Emotional Reactions, August 2004; Handling Fears, Nov./Dec. 2004); Shame, November 2008; Grief, May 2006 and August 2009; Tears Nov. 2012.
Again, emotions are worth thinking about often, as our stronger emotions can bring us both joy and misery.
Regulate but Don’t Squelch
I have never been one for squelching natural feelings. They are the messages about what’s really going on inside us and around us. Repress that and not only do you miss important knowledge, but the bottled up physical reaction can be channeled into chronic illnesses.
On the other hand, feeling emotionally stressed and out of control is also not good for us for many reasons, and there are times when we just do not want a strong emotional reaction. So we have to find the right balance between opening up to feelings and controlling them. Most of us tend to lean one way, so that balance is always a challenge. Often there is one emotion that’s easy for us to know and regulate, and one that will be challenging our entire life.
It is always a good idea to know what you are feeling and how much you feel it, whether you show it outwardly or not. When you don’t know, your dreams will often tell you “the rest of the story.” Roughly, the more emotion you feel in a dream, the more that particular emotion is going on in you but not being fully realized. That makes nightmares, for example, very valuable for self-understanding and ultimately for self-regulation.
Once you know what you feel, however, it is quite right to have some control over where, how, and how long you deal with it. It’s good to have some tools so that you can prolong the joy, happiness, and curiosity, but not feel negative emotions past their usefulness (although they all have their uses or at least good reasons for occurring). The purpose of emotional regulation, however, is more than to feel good. Sometimes we want to alter how we feel in order to work better or accomplish a goal (e.g., staying calm helps you get a child dressed for school; getting madder convinces someone you mean it).
Even more interesting, sometimes we try to make certain ways of regulating our emotions a habit, in order to have the kind of personality we want. If we want our character to be calm, fun to be with, compassionate, optimistic, friendly, or simply authentic, we try to shape our emotions in that direction. I imagine that HSPs work especially hard on this refining of emotional responses and are probably better at it, so that maybe people say not just that you are highly sensitive, but “you’re SO calm” or “you’re really hilarious” or “you are a truly compassionate person,” indicating your success at refining your character in the emotional direction of your choice.
Fortunately, HSPs are not more emotional in the sense of getting more volatile or physiologically intense than others, unless they grew up in homes where there was very little emotional regulation. Generally, the research does not show increased activation in HSPs in areas of the brain related to “primitive emotion” (again, this can vary with childhood experiences–for example, HSPs are more prone to anxiety and depression if they had a difficult childhood). Rather than getting more “all stirred up” than others, we tend to process emotional experiences more in “higher” parts of the brain, the ones designed precisely for emotional regulation. Again, this “higher” type of “strong” emotional response also allows us to shape our emotional personalities much more than if we were all reflexive reaction.
Let’s look at four examples of processing emotions in an advantageous way.
Fear: Choosing When to Feel It
We usually want to “down regulate” fear. But fear is a very primitive emotion, designed to save us from danger, so it is perhaps the most difficult to regulate. If it is a life or death matter, such as waiting for a medical report as to whether you have a terminal illness, I doubt you can do much to control your fear except distract yourself temporarily.
But if you have something you fear in a more irrational way, like flying or going to the dentist or public speaking, first decide if you can do anything to alleviate your fears. You might read about the actual statistical risk of death in an airplane (very, very slight) or think about all the flight crews who fly an entire lifetime and are still around. If you fear going to the dentist, you find one known to be especially understanding of and skilled with pain sensitivity. In short, you prepare as thoroughly as possible.
Then try this: Rather than attempt to have no fear, decide on the time when you will be anxious, and postpone your anxiety until then so that you can live your life enjoyably up to that hour. You can decide, “I will be anxious the day I fly” or “when I take my seat;” “I will be anxious starting when I go into the dentist office;” “I will be anxious the day of the talk.” By not processing your fear in the back of your mind during this long period, you may find you feel less of it when the time comes. But that is not the goal. The goal is simply not to be overrun by a fear of something you know you will do anyway.
Grief: Anticipatory Grief is not so Bad
I have noticed that HSPs look ahead in all sorts of ways, especially to things they will have to cope with, and that includes loss. Hence we tend to grieve things in advance. On the last day of a vacation my husband will wake up and say, “Gee, I feel kind of down.” It turns out he’s sad that our vacation is ending. I felt sad about that when we reached the halfway point. By now I have accepted it and turned my attention to what I will be doing when I get home. Have I ruined my vacation because of it? Not if I can feel it, then put it aside. I just felt it earlier. I couldn’t help it.
Most of us have thought about how we would manage if we lost someone important in our lives, but I suspect HSPs have given more thought to that–not just the practical side if the person was gone, but the emotional hole that would be left. We work on it, hoping to find a certain sense of resolution or reassurance that we would survive. Maybe we look ahead to it being horribly hard. We would never “get over it.” We would be awash in pain, for a long time. But maybe we see that in time we would survive. We have envisioned it. For others, grief and its outcome often seem to come as almost a complete surprise (unless we bring the subject up).
Is anticipatory grief good or bad? I guess it just is, but it also feels to me, intuitively, like at least not a bad thing. We are exploring how we will regulate something far in advance, and to do what we need to get some idea about what it will be like. Maybe we want to begin shaping our personality now towards greater equanimity. A non-sensitive person might think it crazy to worry about something so far in the future, but they are not us. We do need to find a way to “hold” our vision of future grief, however, and one metaphor is to think of it as behind a glass door that we can see through, yet is closed so that we are not living with it fully. I wrote this in Comfort Zone in 2007, about aging, another thing we anticipate. I can’t say it better now.
Flowery denial [or any kind of denial] does not work for HSPs. We notice our bodily changes with as much keenness as any other subtlety, and we have our stronger-than-others’ emotional reactions to it. Sometimes talking about it helps, but sometimes it just further erodes the soul’s sense of personal purpose and destiny. So, although we cannot put aging into some optimist’s vault for all things unpleasant, perhaps we need a glass door between it and us–a determination not to let the end of life ruin the rest of life. We know it is there, we can see it all the time, it reminds us to be in the present and leave no important words left unsaid, but we must keep a certain necessary barrier.
Anger: Processing Works
I once asked HSPs in a survey whether they tended to be less angry than others, and their answers did not indicate a difference. That was a bit of a relief, as I think we HSPs need our anger to maintain our boundaries. But I imagine that, compared to others, most of the time we process the situation before we express our anger. Not always, of course, and occasionally a spontaneous outburst can be a good thing. But “down regulating” anger often takes you closer to your ultimate goal of getting what you want because you pause long enough to notice what is going on and consider the best strategy.
Anger, like fear, is generally designed to create a swift response. When we are angry, we HSPs swiftly start thinking of what we want to say, write, or do. We rush to process it! The more time we leave for that, the better our ultimate action. It’s very useful to wait 24 hours, for example, before responding to criticism. But you probably already do that, because you have had some of these experiences: (a) The criticism was justified, but you could only see that after you got over your shame and defensiveness; (b) it was not about you but the other person’s stress or complex; (c) you misunderstood what was said; or (d) the person felt ashamed and cleared things up or apologized before you had to say a thing, and it was good that you didn’t.
In other cases we need to consciously “up regulate” our anger. Anger is the “moral emotion” because it causes us to set boundaries so that the other person will not cross ours and in so doing violate an ethical or moral value. Most ethics, after all, are about boundaries. You can’t have what’s mine. You can’t cut in front of me. You can’t take up my rightful space. You must play fair so that I also get a chance. You can’t say things about me that are not true. Etcetera. People without boundaries cannot assert those things. They allow others to walk all over them, thereby actually encouraging others to behave badly. Unfair or not, it’s usually the victim who has to speak up first if injustices are going to end. Sometimes we have to work ourselves up into a state of righteous indignation just to do the right thing.
Joy: An Ode, I Wish
Have you listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony lately? The last movement? It puts to music Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” (You can read the English translation of that. The last stanzas have convinced some people that Beethoven was not one of us but from another planet!) I understand that the tune was just a beer house song. But what he did with it. Beethoven was deaf by the time it was heard by others, and very ill. He conducted the orchestra the first time it was played in public, but I understand that they had to ignore him pretty much. He couldn’t hear his own music. No wonder he was a grouch and ruined almost every relationship he ever had.
However, the man still understood joy, and so can we. I’m sure many of you have seen this video, put out by a bank, I understand. But it does capture the sheer joy of that movement/moment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBaHPND2QJg
Joy is something that we stumble upon, often through the arts, or relationships, or nature. We need to remember these experiences and foster them, promote them, and share them. They are truly what make life worth living. How to do that? Expose yourself to art, especially poetry and music, but whatever you like. Roger Housden’s collection, Dancing with Joy, 99 Poems, is one place to begin.
Art doesn’t have to be joyful to create joy, as long as it stirs in you a wonderful feeling about being alive. A recent novel that did that for me was Out Stealing Horses by Per Patterson. But art is all a matter of taste. What I like might not give you joy at all.
Once exposed to something that has given you joy, savor what pleased you and describe it to those others who will not squelch you but enjoy with you (the best sort of friends to have). Don’t forget to laugh with others, too. It can be the greatest joy, and interestingly, to laugh usually requires being with at least one other person.
Another simple source of joy is to get in touch with your younger self. What did he or she en-joy? Then do more of that.
Finally, try seeing your everyday reality in an utterly different way. Did you ever take psychedelic drugs? If you did, you know what it’s like to see everything as if for the first time, and to see into things as if they are alive and speaking to you, for good or ill. Well, everything is speaking to you when you enliven it with your human consciousness, which we do all the time anyway. We can only see the world through our consciousness. But usually we see in a way that dulls because the mind says, “I know what this is–I’ve seen it many times.” But have you seen it? Everything around us is enchanted. It can be. If you look through the surface to the hidden secret. Try it. I find it can make the most boring moment joyful.
I was sitting on a bench in the NY subway, one of the least joy-filled, most dulling places I know. I decided to switch to looking beneath the surface. Across the tracks there were tiles on the wall. Some I already knew to be quite pretty, even if coated with grime. They spell out the number of the street where this station was, 42nd, inside of a box of various shades of blue green. I have focused on them many times for this purpose. What I had ignored was the seemingly boring expanse of white tiles beneath, and beneath those the red and white diagonal stripes signaling danger. In some stations these are painted, but in this one the stripes are made of tiles–each has two solid red ones plus others divided along the diagonal into red and white to fit where needed to make a stripe as crisp as if painted. It’s hard to explain, but when I saw how clever it was and geometrically pleasing, it was a little moment of joy. Telling you about it, the joy of the memory is even greater.
People can be the biggest, most complicated sources of joy, as you know. Children are a little less complicated, animals even less. What joy an animal can bring. A flower? Sheer, uncomplicated joy. But you know all that.
What brings you joy and how can you “up regulate” that in your life? Every moment of life is something–sad, scary, boring, shameful, etc. We HSPs are able to feel so much. Pluck some good moments out of what’s around you. Don’t feel guilty when you don’t, but realize you may at times have a choice.
Joy Resor says
Thank you so much, Dr. Aron!
I so enjoyed this blog post, and I’ve sent a section of it to my HSP partner who hasn’t been to a dentist in ten years because of the pain he remembers from a cleaning.
I read your first (I believe) book years ago, which gave me feelings of self-acceptance I’d never had.
Since then I’ve been depressed, had my car totaled…enormously grown and changed, been divorced, been in relationships, written books and more. I’m in complete joy, fulfillment and happiness spreading love, peace and joy through my presence and offerings these days.
Thank you for being your awesome Self, who discovered so much about HSPs and spread word.
I recently learned about Julia Bjelland, and I’m grateful.