A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Clementine: You don't tell me things, Joel. I'm an open book. I tell you everything... every damn embarrassing thing. You don't trust me.
Joel: Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.
Clementine: I don't do that. I want to know you.
Clementine: I don't constantly talk! Jesus! People have to share things, Joel...
Clementine: That's what intimacy is. I'm really pissed that you said that to me!
Joel: I'm sorry... I just, my life isn't that interesting.
Clementine: I want to read some of those journals you're constantly scribbling in. What do you write in there if you don't have any thoughts or passions or... love?
From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
One of the main characteristics associated with Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a propensity for emotional overwhelm. This applies to both male and female HSPs. Overwhelm is the tidal wave of emotion HSPs experience when bombarded with highly charged sensations or feelings. Emotional overwhelm is a state of being brought on by intense emotion that is difficult to manage and can have effects on thinking and functioning.
Common causes of emotional overwhelm are relationship issues, underlying physical and mental conditions, career demands, financial difficulties, unexpected life transitions, loss of a loved one, sleep deprivation, trauma, and poor diet. This can sometimes lead to depression, anxiety, anger, panic, and guilt.
Dr. Elaine Aron points out that emotional overwhelm is a key characteristic of the HSP personality trait. One of her strategies to highly sensitive people in dealing with overwhelm is the idea of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation can be a conscious or unconscious behavior that influences what emotions we have when we have them and how we experience and express them. The importance of this tactic should not be lost on most HSPs. It’s no secret that negative feelings last longer for highly sensitive people.
Dr. Aron recommends emotional regulation follow acceptance of feelings and not being ashamed of having these feelings. It is her suggestion to HSPs to believe that they can cope with their feelings, equally as well as others do. This helps prevent the feeling of helplessness when overwhelm kicks in. She urges the recognition to trust that these feelings will not last and to assure that there is always hope that eventually you can do something to ameliorate strong emotions.
Psychologists refer to feelings as affect. Affect includes feelings and mood. Emotions tend to be briefer than moods. Emotions are more specific , precipitated by a situation or event, whereas moods are broader and have a tendency to linger beyond the triggering events. Feelings are measured by a scale of high or low pleasure and high or low activation. An example might be, anxiety with a low pleasure rating, but a high activation score.
There is some variability in the ability of people to regulate emotion. We all could use this approach at times. Some generally accepted strategies are changing our thoughts, reappraisal – thinking about different things, distraction – doing something different and surface acting (change expressions) or conversely deep acting (regulating feelings). Developing coping skills is important when dealing with overwhelming emotions. However, it is not the same as emotional regulation, although, coping does involve the use of emotional regulation among other actions.
Regulating feelings is not easy or straightforward. There is some automatic regulation that does take place using unconscious learned behavior. For example, a lot of our social behaviors are learned and acted upon without much thought. And, we all know that feelings can be contagious, so others can affect our emotions by simple proximity. For HSPs self-control of emotions can be an exhausting exercise.
Emotional culture and emotional exhaustion are correlated. Those cultures that favor an institutional approach to emotional regulation tend to express more stress and emotional exhaustion. These cultures provide more pressure for cultural norms and conformity. The United States is one such culture. Emotional exhaustion, also known as burnout, creates a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion resulting from excessive environmental and internal demands. This can lead to numerous health issues and can be mentally debilitating.
Stress releases cortisol into the body, and immune systems can be suppressed during stressful times leading to disease and systems shut down in the body. This is not good for HSPs or anyone for that matter. And, although this happens to all humans, HSPs are particularly vulnerable. It is just our nature to process emotions at such a high rate, with a higher influx of sensory information, creating a perfect storm for overwhelm, both emotionally and physically.
Does that make HSPs hypersensitive or prone to histrionic personality disorder (read: you’re getting hysterical)? Some people may think that, but actually, hypersensitivity, a part of Sensory Processing Disorder (not Sensory Processing Sensitivity), is about unusually high reactions to sensory stimulus. This can be a single sense or multiple senses, and in and of itself can be debilitating. Histrionic personality disorder (hysterical), a condition that occurs mostly in women is an excessive expression of emotion used to drive attention seeking behavior. A manipulative behavior typically learned early in life and manifesting in young adulthood. Neither of these should be confused with emotional overwhelm or as causes for emotional overwhelm in HSPs.
For most HSPs shutting down and getting away to solitude is the most typical response. But, is this always practical? At work or in public emotional self-regulation is an expected cultural norm. In fact, one definition of emotional regulation espouses dealing with life experiences with socially acceptable levels of emotion, modifying, evaluating and moderating reactions via extrinsic and intrinsic means. General advice from most authorities leans towards an exercise in thought sculpting these eruptive emotions to control the response.
But can this be controlled like a tap? Can it be throttled down situationally? Or do we only have the ability to control the aftermath? What are the warning signs, signals that help warn of an impending dam blast of emotion? Should the focus rather be on moderating the emotions or modulating them? As I am using the terms, moderating is more about changing emotions as they arise, whereas, modulating would focus on controlling emotions at the source.
Moderation techniques would include the thought sculpting mentioned previously or simply as Dr. Aron suggests waiting and allowing the emotional wave to subside and then sharing with a trusted confidant. By sharing, the emotion is released of additional internal processing by talking it through. There is an interesting process model for emotional regulation, which includes a feedback loop to repeat the process if necessary. It consists of four components, 1) the situation or event, 2) giving attention to the situation, 3) appraising, evaluating and interpreting the situation, and 4) formulating a response – then if necessary looping back to the beginning.
Some additional strategies with this method would include, remove yourself from the situation, modifying the situation, redirecting your attention from the situation, cognitive change, and moderating the response to fit the situation.
Modulation techniques would be those techniques that mostly focus on relaxation strategies to gear the nervous system to a state of emotional calm and training the brain to respond to highly emotional situations in a calmer manner. It is in many ways, training the brain to stay calm under fire. Some of these techniques I have been advocating in other blog posts. They include autogenic training, bio/neurofeedback, deep breathing exercises, hypnotherapy, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, massage, yoga, Qigong, meditation, EFT, prayer or intention training. All of these methods help by creating internal peace and calm as a steady state. This does not prevent emotional events from triggering familiar responses, but rather helps the experiencer return to a calmer state faster.
Yes, there are actions you can take to prevent or ameliorate emotional overwhelm, but they do involve practice and control. It may be best to find one that best fits you and then stick with it. Overtime, with repeated effort, it will help in some ways rewire your brain for handling intense emotion.
Here are some further suggestions:
Clementine: I apply my personality in a paste.
From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.