One of the hallmarks of high sensitivity is experiencing strong emotions. When we feel our feelings, they tend to be on the intense side.
Now, if you’re experiencing positive emotions, this is a great quality to possess, of course. I mean who wouldn’t want to feel extra good?
But the other side of the coin can be less pleasant. Our bad feelings can quickly spiral out of control. Words like desperate, hopeless, and disconsolate come to mind. Or what about furious and irate? And sometimes we might even throw what qualifies as tantrums. Utter chaos.
Needless to say, a grown-up experiencing emotions that rival a 3-year-old’s in intensity can get you in trouble. It’s like your brain is taken over by an alien and you might do or say things that you regret later.
That’s why it’s crucial for highly sensitive people to learn how to manage strong emotions. Here are seven steps that I have found helpful as I’ve learned to get my own emotional outbursts under control.
How To Manage Strong Emotions
1. Watch The Temperature To Prevent Boiling Over
Think of yourself as a pot of gently boiling water. Everything that happens around you and to you makes up the flames that keep the water boiling. Your self control, on the other hand, is the lid that keeps the water safely contained inside the pot.
Anything that taxes you, stresses you, or burdens you turns the temperature of the burner up higher, causing the water to bubble and the lid to rattle.
Anything that relaxes you, recharges you, or strengthens you, turns the temperature down and keeps the lid securely in place.
When you don’t watch the temperature… When you just let the fire burn without minding it… When you people please and overcommit and neglect to take care of yourself, the lid will flip and the water will inevitably boil over.
But when you keep the temperature down by prioritizing self care and by periodically cracking the lid open a little bit to let out some steam, your emotions won’t build up to boil over as often. For the vast majority of time, they will stay gentle and easier to manage.
2. Give Your Rational Side A Seat At The Table
Emotions are hot and impulsive. And whenever they are in charge, they can make us act impulsively. They can make us do things and say things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do or say.
Now, emotions are a part of life and they will never go away. Nor do we want them to. Emotions make us human. We are not aiming for robothood.
But when emotions are being overwhelmingly loud, it helps to have a little rational voice whispering in your ear. Just for balance. To help remind you of the rest of the steps I’m about to teach you.
But the thing is… When you’re in the throes of emotion, the rational voice is typically nowhere to be found and you’re not even gonna wanna look for it.
So the rational voice needs some extra nurturing and strengthening to make sure it’s always present. It needs to be kept right around the corner, waiting, ready to take its seat at the table as necessary.
There are three ways to make sure your rational side always has a seat reserved:
- Think about how you want to deal with emotions when you are in a calm state. Come up with a plan. Think about who you want to be and what you want to believe and how you want to act. Think about this stuff A LOT. It takes a lot of repetition to make sure these thoughts will pop up later when you need them to.
- Print this article or write a letter to yourself listing what you want to remember the next time you are overcome by negative emotion.
- Ask a trusted person to gently remind you.
3. Remember That Emotions Come And Go
The most important thing the rational voice needs to remind you of is that emotions come and go.
No matter how bad you feel in that moment – no matter how hopeless and desperate – no matter how certainly you KNOW that you will never ever feel better again – that bad feeling will pass.
It has passed before and it will pass again.
4. See Emotions As A Messenger
Emotions may come and go, but that doesn’t mean that they are insignificant. That doesn’t mean that you should try to stuff them or ignore them.
Instead, it’s helpful to see emotions as messengers. They may be loud and unruly and chaotic messengers. They may seem C-R-A-Z-Y.
But they might just be bringing you a gift.
An important message.
5. Take The Message Seriously
Here’s one of the biggest mistakes I made when I was struggling with depression. I labeled myself and my emotions crazy. What I was feeling – all the thoughts flooding my mind – they were all unreasonable and irrational. So I would write them off as crazy talk and take meds to numb the pain. Instead of forging a partnership between my rational side and emotional side, I created a war between them.
You know how I know this was a mistake? I know it was a mistake, because it didn’t help me feel better. I was basically fluctuating between low-grade bad when everything seemed under control on the outside and high-grade bad when the lid would flip and contents boil over. But always bad.
I only started feeling better when I started taking my emotions seriously. When I started listening to my feelings, taking notes, and actually addressing my grievances.
6. Wait For Emotions To Pass…
Now, when you’re actually in the middle of intense emotion, it’s hard to take productive action. You’re not going to solve all your problems when your brain is in “feeling mode”. When I have tried, I’ve just ended up in neverending arguments with myself and people close to me.
In my experience, it’s best to just sit with the feelings and wait them out. Sometimes I literally do just that: sit and wait. Sometimes I sleep it off. Sometimes I write a list of the feelings I’m feeling and the problems and issues related to them.
7. …And Then Take Action
When the emotions have calmed down a bit – no longer burning quite so intensely – it’s time to take action. What was behind those strong emotions you were feeling? What can you do to address the issue in the future?
I like to write it all down to help organize my thoughts, because usually there are multiple feelings and multiple issues that led to those feelings to address.
A few weeks ago, I had an “everything is too hard” meltdown and here’s what I wrote down:
Problem: I have X amount of capacity to tolerate stress. When the amount of stress I’m under exceeds my capacity, I break down mentally. Right now, my capacity has been exceeded. Why?
- Stress Trigger #1: People being unhappy.
- Stress Trigger #2: Not having enough time to do everything I need to do.
- Stress Trigger #3: Asking for help.
- Stress Trigger #4: Feeling like I’m not good enough.
Under each of the triggers, I listed two to five potential solutions – ways I could cope, things I needed to keep reminding myself of, and things I could do differently in the future.
My meltdown happened for a reason. It was my emotions doing their job and bringing me a message. I was exceeding my capacity and I needed to take better care of myself.
Dear reader, I advice you to do the same.
Sit with your emotions.
Listen to them.
Take their message seriously.