Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person is overcome with emotion while sitting next to his partner on the couch

The Truth About Overwhelming Emotions, According to a Highly Sensitive Therapist

Highly sensitive people can be overwhelmed by intense emotions. Here’s the secret to stopping that, according to an HSP therapist.

Racing heart. Tight chest. Trembling hands. Shallow breath. 

These are not just physiological sensations — this is how our bodies react when experiencing big, overwhelming emotions. Despite the unpleasantness of such sensations, they are often less confusing than their emotional counterparts. After all, society does not teach us emotional literacy, preferring instead to prioritize what they consider to be rationality while further stigmatizing our sensitive feelings.  

It’s no wonder then why emotions tend to be so overwhelming. And for highly sensitive people (HSPs), who feel our emotions even more deeply, the overwhelm becomes that much greater. 

As a psychotherapist and a fellow HSP, I understand this struggle both on a professional and personal level. I’m here to tell you that your strong emotions do not mean that you’re doing anything “wrong” — in fact, as an HSP, that’s how you’re innately wired! For better (or sometimes worse), emotional storms are part of our nature!

So, instead, I want to help normalize your experience by discussing how HSPs are wired differently (especially when it comes to emotions), and provide some helpful reminders when experiencing larger-than-life emotions.

Why HSPs Struggle with Strong Emotions 

The strength of your emotions is not just “in your head.” Indeed, emotions do impact HSPs on a deeper level than non-HSPs! What it boils down to is this: Our highly sensitive brains are wired differently than non-HSP brains due to our sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). Your emotions feel overwhelming because they are stronger than what the remaining 70 percent (approximately) of the population experience.

So, what is different about the highly sensitive brain? One study found that higher scores on SPS were correlated with greater activity in brain regions involved with awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and preparing for action in response to emotionally-evocative social stimuli.

Let’s break each component down for how they contribute to our sense of emotional overwhelm.

  • Heightened awareness. Since we are cognizant of the smaller details others might miss, such as someone’s tone of voice or body language, this makes us more conscious of any perceived negativity. Similarly, we can more readily recognize our own internal state, including when something feels “off.” 
  • Increased integration of sensory information. More sensory information ups our chances of feeling overstimulated, which can cause anxiety and exacerbate our current emotional state. 
  • More and more empathy. As emotional sponges, we feel what others are feeling on top of what we are already feeling. Of course, this can lead to us feeling emotionally flooded, trying to balance everything we’re feeling.
  • Preparing for action in response to emotionally evocative social stimuli. Since our brains are wired to be on the lookout for emotionally charged situations — so we can then respond to whatever is going on — this means we are more likely to notice, and subsequently, experience, emotions.

Further research indicates that SPS is associated with more brain activity in regions involved in reflective thinking in response to emotional stimuli, emotional memory, threat response (i.e., fight-flight-or-freeze), stress-control, and social and emotional processing (regarding exposure to negative stimuli). According to the researchers, “[t]hese results support behavioral evidence that emotional arousal, in conjunction with memory, may facilitate deep processing of relevant incoming information, again, the cardinal features of SPS.” This is on top of previous findings that suggest HSPs are more likely to experience difficult emotions, anxiety, and depression.

Although emotions can seem to defy logic, when we look closer, there actually is rhyme and reason behind what is happening… or, at the very least, emotions have patterns they follow, like rules. And getting to know these rules can help equip you to make sense of your emotions, which will, hopefully, reduce overwhelm in the process. Let’s take a look at the four rules of overwhelming emotions now.

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The 4 ‘Rules’ of Overwhelming Emotions

1. The feeling body is stronger than the thinking mind.

Although I cannot take credit for coining this phrase — “The feeling body is stronger than the thinking mind” — as a psychotherapist, this is something I often repeat to my clients. On a rational level, we may know something to be true; however, if we don’t truly feel it on an emotional level, then we won’t be able to accept it.

For example, perhaps you struggle with the belief that you are inherently unlovable. Your thinking mind is able to recognize that this is not true, gathering evidence of the people in your life who care about you. Yet if your feeling body doesn’t accept this counterargument, you won’t believe it as factual, and your overwhelming emotions will remain.

This is because there is an emotional blockage — something preventing you from being able to take in and integrate the message your thinking mind is trying to inform you of. In order to help figure out exactly what this emotional blockage is, it may be helpful to reflect on questions such as: What does my thinking mind know that my feeling body does not? What is my feeling body holding onto that makes it not want to believe the message of the thinking mind? If my thinking mind and feeling body could have a conversation with each other about this, what would they say? 

By identifying what the emotional blockage is, it then becomes easier to address, and eventually overcome, it. 

I also want to encourage you to not judge yourself during this process. There is nothing wrong with you for knowing something on a rational level but not believing it. You are not broken or defective for continuing to feel the overwhelming emotions associated with that belief. 

Indeed, the feeling body really is stronger than the thinking mind. While you may not be able to control what you believe, you are in charge of how you treat yourself. And you don’t have to believe anything in particular about yourself in order to have self-compassion.

2. Difficult emotions are not negative emotions.

Contrary to popular belief, emotions such as sadness, stress, fear, disgust, and even anger are not “negative,” per se. Labeling these as negative implies that not only are the emotions themselves bad, but also that there is something wrong with us for feeling these emotions. In reality, we evolved to feel emotions (all emotions) for a reason! So we should not repress them

Indeed, back in the hunter-gatherer days, one wrong move meant that people did not survive. In order to protect people from potential danger, our neurology developed to include emotions, which produce a stronger and more immediate impact than thoughts do. 

For example, if we were out foraging for food in the forest and then heard twigs snap behind us, fear kicks in, sending us into fight-flight-or-freeze response to help us get out alive. If we had instead taken our time to ponder the likelihood that what we heard was a real threat, we were much more likely to be a bear’s lunch! 

Each of our emotions has an important message they are trying to communicate with us. Sadness, that we have an unmet need. Anger, that a boundary of ours has been violated. Fear, that there is a potential danger to stay away from. Guilt, that we behaved in a way out of alignment with our values. Stress, that we need to slow down… 

Really, the only negative emotion is shame since it indicates not that we did something wrong, but that we are inherently wrong. (But that’s another story for another time.)

While these emotions may feel difficult to experience, they are not inherently negative. When we can accept these emotions and learn from their messages, they then become less overwhelming. Reframe your thoughts about them and ask yourself: What can I learn from my difficult emotions? What lessons and messages are they trying to inform me of?

Want to reduce stress and thrive as an empath? We recommend these online courses from psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland. Click here to learn more.

3. You are not responsible for other people’s emotions.

Due to our compassionate nature, HSPs tend to be hypervigilant about not causing others additional pain. While I do believe this is ultimately a strength of HSPs, if our empathy is left unchecked, it can lead us to believe that we are responsible for other people’s emotions. This tends to show up in two prominent ways, both of which exacerbate our own emotional overwhelm. 

For one, this can look like believing that our emotional experience is burdening others. However, there is a very clear and distinct difference between having malicious intent to cause someone harm vs. them being impacted by your experience. As a highly sensitive therapist, I am often on the receiving end of the latter. I feel compassion toward my clients, joining them in their emotional experience. I’m grateful for their emotional vulnerability, allowing us to share a moment of connection. Indeed, it can be a gift to those around you to be emotionally intimate with them.

This may also look like trying to “fix” other people’s emotions. But you don’t have to take on what is not yours. This only leads to resentment, burnout, and (you guessed it!) more emotional overwhelm. It’s not selfish to focus on meeting your own emotional needs first — you are simply applying your own oxygen mask before assisting others. You can also help in other ways, such as offering kindness and support, without actually taking on responsibility for “fixing” (or attempting to fix) someone else’s emotions.

4. You are allowed to take up space.

HSPs, somewhere along the way, we received the message that we should not take up space, especially when it comes to our emotions. Sometimes, these messages are more subtle, such as being told “You’re so brave!,” “It’s okay, don’t cry,” or “You don’t have to be sad” — all in an attempt to remedy our display of emotions. 

Other times, these messages are glaringly obvious, such as being overtly shamed for crying or being told that emotions are a sign of weakness. 

This idea that we should not take up space may have also shown up in ways unrelated to our emotions, including being encouraged to stay quiet, being praised for acting obediently, and receiving positive feedback for not disrupting the norm. 

Because of this, many of us have this belief that we have to hide our emotions, so as to not be “too much.” We try to suppress them in order to cater to the comfort of others. Internalizing the belief that we cannot take up space might show up as trying to change ourselves to fit into the societal mold by hiding our sensitivity, constantly being selfless and self-sacrificing, and only allowing yourself to give, never receive. The pressure — whether external or internal — to not take up space makes our emotional experience even more overwhelming, as we are denying ourselves an inherent part of our human nature.

I want to let you know that you are allowed to take up space. You have the innate right to show up as your authentic self, sensitivities and all. You are allowed to be human and partake in the very human experience of feeling emotions. You do deserve to reach out to others and be supported when you are going through something difficult. You are allowed to speak your mind, even when your experience is different from the non-sensitive societal norm. And your needs (which are, by definition, a required necessity) should never be compromised for someone else’s comfort. 

Remember: You are gifting the world with your presence when you take up space, especially given all the wonderful strengths that come along with being an HSP. When you take up space, you allow your light to shine through. And we all need to do that more, not less.

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