Emotional regulation may sound like a dry and boring scientific concept, but learning about it can actually be kind of a godsend for many highly sensitive people.
Emotionality happens to be one of the hallmark signs of high sensitivity. Consider the three characteristics of highly sensitive people below:
- HSPs have more reactive nervous systems than less sensitive people. Therefore, HSPs’ emotions are both triggered more easily and felt more intensely.
- Because HSPs’ nervous systems are activated more, we are more vulnerable to stress and fatigue. Being tired and stressed out, in turn, makes it even harder to regulate emotions and easier to get stuck in negative emotions.
- HSPs tend to have high levels of empathy, so we are easily affected by other people’s emotions as well.
Among the hundreds of people who have taken my HSP Types Quiz, nine in 10 state that their emotions are triggered more easily than most other people they know. And nearly as many say that their emotions get so overwhelming they experience meltdowns or blowups.
All that is to say that, sooner or later, most of us start feeling like it might be nice to have a way to smooth over some of these ups and downs. And that’s where emotional regulation comes in.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL REGULATION
According to Psychology Today, emotional regulation is defined as “the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state.” So instead of having your emotions recklessly drive you, it’s a way for you to grab the steering wheel and have some say in your own experience.
Sometimes people talk about up-regulation or amping up your emotions. But I think most highly sensitive people most of the time are going to be more interested in down-regulation, which means reducing the intensity of your emotions.
WHAT TOOLS ARE THERE FOR EMOTIONAL REGULATION
What tools work to regulate emotions depends on the intensity of your emotions. When emotions are mild or moderate, you can try any or all of the following:
- Calm breathing through the nose down into your belly
- Consciously relaxing tension in your body
- Grounding exercises
- Looking for a different perspective and reframing your thoughts
The sooner you catch yourself getting emotional and the sooner you employ tools like the ones above, the more likely they are to work. The difficulty for many highly sensitive people is that our emotions often rise very rapidly – going from zero to one hundred in a split second so that you are already highly activated by the time you become consciously aware that it’s happening.
For intense emotions, it’s good to have a couple of extra tools in your back pocket:
- Physical movement: When your stress response is triggered, it can cause a rapid surge of energy in your body and this energy needs somewhere to go. Some people are literally able to shake off the extra nervous energy, but others may need to just dance or walk or run it off. Your body has prepared you for fight or flight so you are giving it flight.
- Social support: Humans are herd animals and our brains have evolved to find comfort in other humans. So if you are experiencing intense emotions, leaning on safe loved ones can help calm down your nervous system. This actually has its own fancy scientific term: emotional co-regulation.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL CO-REGULATION
According to Frank Anderson, an MD and trauma expert, “co-regulation involves us engaging in safe connection with another person, where the regulated presence of that person’s nervous system helps draw our own nervous system towards regulation.” Basically, being around someone who your brain perceives as safe and whose nervous system is in a calm state can help calm down your own nervous system. Emotional states are contagious!
Co-regulation can be achieved both externally and internally.
External co-regulation takes place when you are regulating your emotions by connecting with another person exactly as described above.
However, it’s also possible to co-regulate internally. We all have a core Self that is healed and whole. If you learn to access your core Self and share calm and compassionate Self energy with your agitated parts, you can give your nervous system the experience of co-regulating and you can self-soothe without involving other people. This is an amazing option for those times when other people aren’t available and for complex trauma survivors whose brains may have a hard time trusting that they are safe around other people.
WHAT EMOTIONAL REGULATION IS NOT
Although we have all these tools available to help find calm amidst emotional storms, it’s important to remember that the goal isn’t to stuff, ignore, or get rid of emotions. Yes, emotions can feel intensely uncomfortable, and yes, uncontrolled emotions can even lead us to act impulsively in the heat of the moment and to do and say things we later regret.
But emotions are natural human reactions to our environment and circumstances and they bring us important messages that are worth listening to. Stuffed, ignored emotions will keep festering. They will keep resurfacing until they are faced, processed, and healed.
So the purpose of emotional regulation isn’t to make you into a robot with no feelings. The purpose of emotional regulation is to help you create space for addressing emotions with care and consideration and to help your nervous system recover.