Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person hit hard by emotions

Science Confirms That Emotions Hit Highly Sensitive People Harder

Life is emotional, there’s no denying that. No matter our upbringing, gender, or personality, we all feel emotions, some stronger than others. As Earl Riney once said, “Our emotions are the driving powers of our lives.”

But maybe you’ve long suspected you feel emotions deeper than other people. Your sadness is a monster that squats on your stomach and chest. Your joy is a bunch of balloons that float you to the sky. You cry easily, get stressed easily, and other people have told you to “just get over it” or “toughen up” — but you can’t.

If your feelings seem bigger, deeper, and more intense than those of other people, it’s because they are. But don’t take my word on it; it’s science. Let me explain.

Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?

Before we jump in, I want to be clear about something: When I talk about intense emotions, I’m not talking about a mental health condition — for example, clinical depression, which can feel like ongoing intense despair, or Borderline Personality Disorder, which can feel like an emotional rollercoaster that won’t stop. If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please get help immediately here.

I’m talking about the capacity to feel deeply in everyday life, both the good and the bad. I’m talking about highly sensitive people.

The term highly sensitive people (HSPs) refers to the 15-20 percent of the population who process stimulation deeply — everything from visual cues to smells to their own thoughts. Sometimes referred to as sensory-processing sensitivity, this trait is completely normal and healthy, and actually comes with a lot of advantages. Although research shows that being highly sensitive is not simply the same as “being emotional,” there is an emotional dimension to the trait.

Not sure if you’re an HSP? Check out my post, 21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person.

HSPs Feel More Negative Emotions

Three recent studies show just how big emotions can be for highly sensitive people. The first, published in 2015 in the Australian Journal of Psychology, involved over 150 participants between the ages of 18 and 60. Participants filled out surveys about their levels of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions, among other things. The researchers also determined if the participants were HSPs or not, using the Highly Sensitive Person Scale developed by Dr. Elaine Aron.

The results? The HSPs were more aware of their negative feelings and experienced more of them — depression, anxiety, stress — than other people.

Wow, you might say, how depressing.

But before you throw up your hands and decide you’re doomed to be a miserable person, that’s not the whole story — read on.

HSPs Feel Positive Emotions More Intensely

Turns out, along with feeling negative emotions more intensely, HSPs also feel positive ones more intensely, too.

In the second study, published in 2016 in Social Behavior and Personality, researchers showed emotionally-arousing images to nearly 100 participants, half of which were HSPs, the other half which tested low on Dr. Aron’s sensitivity scale.

Compared to the other participants, HSPs rated the images — especially the positive ones — as significantly more intense emotionally. They also responded faster to the positive images.

So, while the lows may be lower, the highs may be higher.

The HSP Brain Is Wired for Emotion

Finally, a third study compared a group of women, some who were highly sensitive and some who were not, again using emotionally-arousing images and brain imaging. Compared to the other participants, HSPs simply showed more activation in areas of the brain associated with emotion, emotional memories, and emotion processing.

Yeah, our feelings are big… so what the heck do we do about it?


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For HSPs, Emotional Regulation Is Key

Let’s go back to the first study that found HSPs feel more negative emotions. Why is this? More research still needs to be done, but the scientists believe the reason has to do with emotional regulation. Another significant finding of that study: HSPs do less of it than other people.

Why is emotional regulation such a big deal? Well, if our emotions are the physiological, behavioral, and experiential responses to our evaluation of a situation, then emotional regulation is what we do about it.

For example, if you’re frustrated, do you take a step back? If you’re stressed, do you go walk in the sunshine? If you’re angry, can you find a reason to laugh instead? These are examples of healthy emotional regulation.

Why do HSPs struggle with healthy emotional regulation? Perhaps we’ve had so many bad experiences that the typical strategies just don’t work for us (this loud, crazy world isn’t made for HSPs). Maybe due to our depth of processing, our negative emotions simply stick around longer (we keep turning them over and over in our minds). Or maybe some of us didn’t learn healthy coping strategies when we were young (most parents don’t know how best to nurture an HSP child).

No matter the reason, if you’re struggling in this area, it’s not your fault, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed — but there are some things you can do from here on out that will help.

How to Improve Your Emotional Regulation

Getting better at emotional regulation could be a whole other article in and of itself — nay, a series of articles followed by a lifelong course — but here are some tips to help you get started.

Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, recommends these five simple steps:

  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.

Another strategy is to imagine that you have two brains — an “emotional” brain and a “cognitive” brain. The cognitive brain, according to Julie Bjelland, a therapist who serves HSPs, is the rational, fact-based part of us that helps control our emotions. When our emotional brain becomes too activated, our cognitive brain essentially “goes to sleep.” So the key is to bring your cognitive brain back online.

How can you do that? Essentially through language. You have to use your cognitive brain to find words you want to write or say. So when you’re feeling big emotions, try talking to someone supportive or journaling.

Bjelland also recommends actively checking in with your emotions throughout the day. You could do this every time you go to the bathroom (or any other repetitive activity). Ask yourself these two questions in a compassionate, loving way:

  1. How am I doing?
  2. What do I need?

“You will be amazed at how much better you can feel when you keep checking in on yourself and keeping that cognitive brain awake, supporting your emotional brain,” Bjelland told me via email.

The bottom line is you can learn emotional regulation. Although big feelings will always be there for HSPs, they don’t have to master us.

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