HSPs and Intense Emotions
Raise your hand if you associate sensitivity with weakness? You aren’t alone. Many of us were taught that being sensitive is a negative thing, but in actuality there are many advantages to having a highly sensitive brain. One of those advantages is that we Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) feel our emotions more intensely than non-sensitive people.
You might be thinking ... and how exactly is that a good thing? It’s a good thing because
strong emotional responses can provide us with important information IF we know how to be with and process our intense emotions, instead of becoming overwhelmed by them.
HSPs and Emotional Overwhelm
Emotional overwhelm is one of the most common complaints of Highly Sensitive People everywhere. During conflict we are shaking—hell, we are shaking even at the idea of conflict! We hear a sad story and we are moved to tears. We witness injustice and are overcome with anger, empathy, and the burning desire to do something. Learning to effectively navigate intense emotions allows us to utilize the information our emotions provide to our advantage and then take skillful and appropriate action.
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence for HSPs
Anyone can learn to feel intense emotions without becoming overwhelmed, but we as HSPs are particularly equipped to learn these skills because our brains are naturally wired toward introspection and mentalizing—the ability to understand our own mental state, as well as the mental state of others. So we might feel things more intensely, but we also have an edge when it comes to learning the skills necessary to navigate and utilize these strong emotional responses to our benefit.
Master the Art of Feeling Deeply
Learning to successfully surf the waves of intense emotion is a skill, and as with any skill, it requires intentional and consistent practice over time. In other words, do not expect to see changes overnight.
Getting to know ourselves and building a relationship with ourselves (which is the deeper underlying process here) is a lifelong endeavor. Embrace it, lean into it, and accept it for what it is. Feeling emotions is part of being human, and the deeper we understand our emotions the more fully ourselves we can be.
Here are 7 ways you can begin building a relationship with your emotions in order to avoid overwhelm and maximize the benefits of your high sensitivity.
7 Tips for Navigating Overwhelming Emotions
1. Take It Back To The Basics. Get Into Your Body.
Increasing our emotional intelligence requires us to get in touch with our bodies in a conscious and intentional way. Emotions are experienced in the body and through the body.
If we are scared, how do we know we’re scared? Our heart rate picks up, our palms get sweaty, our mouth gets dry, our hands shake, our voice shakes. This is what we call “fear.” All of this happens subconsciously, but in order to become an expert on regulating our emotions we need to practice making the unconscious conscious. We need to practice consciously experiencing our emotions in our bodies and getting curious about what they actually feel like.
Tip for Practice: The next time you feel a strong emotion pause and ask yourself any of these questions: "How do I know I am feeling _____? How is my body signaling to me that I am feeling ______? What is the quality or texture of the sensations I'm feeling (tense, tight, sharp, soft, fuzzy, rough, aching, dull, etc.)? Where am I feeling the sensations in my body?”
Notice where you feel the emotion in your body and then actually sit there and try to feel it.
This sounds simple, and in theory it should be, but for most of us it's not. However, with intentional practice it can become second nature.
Often when confronted with an intense, painful emotion we will find ourselves saying/thinking, “I don’t know what to do… what should I do?!” There is a desperate desire to DO something to make the feeling go away in order to experience relief. But most often in those moments what we actually need to do, first and foremost, is just feel it. That’s often all we can do. After we’ve felt the emotion, then we can decide, with a clear head, if any action needs to take place.
Tip for Practice: The next time you feel a painful emotion practice taking an intentional pause to really experience the sensations in your body. Notice the desire to move away from the sensations into thoughts. Notice the parts of you that are scared to feel the pain and any stories that come up about that. Notice the desire to move away from the feelings into action—checking your phone, texting someone, getting up and distracting yourself with some other task. Try to turn toward your emotions, even if just for a few seconds, instead of automatically turning away.
What were you taught about emotions growing up? Were you taught they were bad? Dangerous? That they needed to be avoided? That you needed to cover them up? Make them “go away” as quickly as possible? Were you taught that happiness is the only acceptable emotional state? Were you taught that tears were weak?
Becoming emotionally intelligent requires that we heal the wounds we have regarding our emotional selves. Healing begins with awareness of the exact nature of our wounds. Get curious about any negative messages you were given and start to challenge them with new, more accurate information.
Tip for Practice: Get out a journal and start writing about all the things you were taught about emotions. What ideas were you taught that were true and supportive? What ideas were you taught that were sourced from fear or ignorance? What beliefs do you want to keep, and which ones need to be let go?
The inner observer is the part of us that watches our internal experience and is capable of holding onto a certain level of objectivity and curiosity toward it. In order to successfully ride the waves of our intense emotions we need to access some detachment and objectivity regarding our experience.
Accessing the inner observer allows us to take the stance of an objective scientist or journalist, simply collecting data about what it is like to experience the feeling/energy in our body. It helps us remain calm and neutral in the face of stress.
Remaining calm allows us to be WITH our emotions or our difficult/painful experience, instead of IN IT. Being in it means being completely absorbed by and identified with our emotions or thoughts. When we are completely identified with our fear or our pain we have no capacity to be present with ourselves; we have no capacity to soothe ourselves. More on this below, under number 8. Re-parenting Ourselves.
Developing and strengthening our connection with our inner observer is what we are doing when we practice mindfulness exercises or meditations. Accessing our inner observer is a skill that can only be strengthened with practice and is the foundation for inner child healing. Ultimately, healing our inner child is what allows us to navigate our intense emotions most effectively.
Tip for Practice: Start getting curious about the content of your internal world. Sit down for 5 minutes every day with the intention of focusing on your breath and watching the activity in your mind and body. Watch for thoughts, watch for physical sensations/emotions. Drop any desire to change or manipulate your experience and just observe.
E-motion is simply energy that is moving through our body. Nothing more, nothing less. Simplifying emotion in this way can help us avoid becoming overwhelmed. If emotions are energy, then all we need to do when we feel an emotion is relax into the energy and allow it to move through our body. Easy to say, harder to do. But not impossible. As I said, these are skills. And skills require practice and determination to master.
Intense negative emotions rarely feel simple because our mind gets a hold of it and starts adding its two cents into the equation: enter catastrophic thoughts… fears… “what if’s”… worse case scenarios, etc.
Learning to observe and distinguish between the energy of emotions themselves and the thoughts we have about them helps us avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Tips for Practice: The next time you are feeling anxious, see if you can distinguish between the physical sensations of anxiety (the emotion) and the thoughts you are having in response to the physical sensations (the story you are telling yourself about the anxiety).
Breathing into the pain is how we allow the energy of intense emotion to move through our body.
As someone who has birthed two babies at home, I draw parallels between the skills required for moving intense emotion through the body with the skills needed to breathe through the contractions of childbirth. Both processes—feeling intense emotions and giving physical birth—go more smoothly when we are willing and able to surrender to and trust the wisdom of the energy moving through our body.
Our bodies are designed to procreate. Our bodies are also perfectly designed to midwife us through even the most intense of emotional pains.
Tip for Practice: Breathe with Gravity. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by emotional intensity/pain, breathe slowly and deeply through your nose on the inhale. On the exhale (also through your nose) imagine sending your breath through your body, down, and out your feet into the Earth with gravity. Breathe into the intensity of your emotional pain, gently noticing and acknowledging any parts of you that wish to resist it or turn away from it. If tears or the desire to move or vocalize come up during this process, wonderful, breathe into those too. Trust the wisdom of your body.
What does re-parenting ourselves have to do with emotional regulation? Everything.
Inner child work—healing our relationship with the young, wounded parts of ourselves—is what allows us to weather life’s inevitable storms. Learning to care for ourselves in the same way we would a child, or an animal, or someone dear to us—with compassion, tenderness, love, and concern—is the ultimate skill that we draw upon when navigating intense emotions and regulating our nervous system away from emotional overwhelm.
If we are able to avoid abandoning ourselves in the same ways that we might have been abandoned by others when we were young, we can handle emotions of any intensity. We can handle the pain because it no longer scares us. By learning to be with ourselves, soothing ourselves during difficult times, we are no longer scared because we are no longer alone.
Tip for Practice: The next time you feel a painful emotion ask yourself, “What would I say to a child in my care if they were feeling this way?” “What would I say to a friend who was feeling this way?” “How would I treat them?” And give yourself what you would give to them.
Meet the Author
Ready to heal your relationship with yourself?
Maggie is a therapist based out of Lawrence, Kansas who specializes in therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for self-worth, therapy for anxiety, therapy for childhood trauma.
Maggie is passionate about helping people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible; you don't have to suffer alone. Maggie offers online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation!
Other Services Offered by Maggie
In addition to providing online therapy anywhere in Kansas, Maggie is also a professional astrologer, and offers Birth Chart Readings anywhere in the United States, as well as abroad.
Astrology is a powerful tool for gaining self-awareness, finding meaning in and understanding of our difficult experiences, and for receiving validation regarding our own unique life path. All of which supports our mental health in a positive way!
Interested in getting a Natal Chart Reading? Book a free phone consultation and let’s get started!