Highly sensitive people are wired to experience the world with greater emotional “vividness,” which means negative emotions can hit hard.
Remember when people used the phrase “high on life?” I’ve definitely felt that way, but I’ve also felt very low too. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), someone who feels and processes stimulation deeply, I tend to experience all emotions intensely. Especially when I’m dealing with any sort of life change, my emotions can feel like they’re on a rollercoaster. One minute, so excited — and the next, panicked and tortured about dealing with it, even if it’s something positive, like getting a promotion at work.
(Are you an HSP? Here are 21 signs that you’re a highly sensitive person.)
This rollercoaster experience can happen to HSPs because the parts of our brains that process emotions are literally more active than they are in other people. We’re wired to experience the world with greater emotional “vividness,” almost like we’re seeing it in high-def.
And, while that can be incredible with happy emotions, it can make negative emotions completely overwhelming. For example, a single small source of anxiety can derail me for days, such as when I’m worried that my best friend or coworker is secretly mad at me. In fact, I believe these strong emotions are a common reason why many highly sensitive people feel like something is “wrong with them” or they wish they could erase their sensitivity for good.
Here’s why negative emotions hit especially hard for HSPs — and five things you can do to lessen their impact.
Why Negative Emotions Hit Hard for Highly Sensitive People
Besides processing all emotions vividly, HSPs essentially deal with “more” emotions than the average person. This is because we tend to absorb emotions from other people (or just from the mood of the room). In other words, we don’t just deal with our own negative feelings, we have to deal with everyone else’s, too.
For example, let’s say your spouse is stressed out about something that happened at work. He comes home grumpy and pouts around the house all night. Pretty soon, even though you had a good day, you feel stressed, too, simply because from the energy he’s giving off. Here it is, the HSP’s tendency to easily take on the emotional states of others.
And we can get stuck in them, too. When you feel things so strongly and deeply, as HSPs do, and you’re picking them up everywhere you go, sometimes you have to take time to figure out what you’re even feeling and why. Are you anxious because of how your job interview went? Or is it just because the interviewer seemed distracted? Or is it because the barista at the coffee shop was having a bad day and didn’t realize he was practically screaming it with his body language?
Sure, this happens to everyone to some extent, but for HSPs, absorbing others’ emotions is a very real struggle, every day. Sometimes we end up harboring emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety for reasons that aren’t even ours to deal with. Other times, they’re definitely our own — but we’re feeling them so strongly that it’s hard to even visualize them ever getting better.
Either way, that’s when it’s time to step back and start to process them — in a way that will actually help you get “un-stuck.” Here’s how.
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5 Steps for Highly Sensitive People to Deal with Negative Emotions (And Actually Feel Better)
I believe learning to manage your emotions in a healthy way is important, and I give it a whole chapter in my book about my journey as a highly sensitive person with anxiety. Here are five steps I’ve identified to process and move past negative emotions:
1. You’re going to have to feel those feelings.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling anxious or hurt, I want to shove that icky, negative feeling as far away from me as possible. But here’s the trick: You need to feel those emotions before you can fully release them.
For some people, that may be as simple as sitting quietly somewhere safe (cozy blanket, anyone?) and thinking through them. For me, though, it takes more. Some effective ways to really get unblocked and process an emotion include journaling, talking it out with a trusted friend — someone who treats you with respect — or simply crying. Yes, crying is nature’s way of truly feeling something and letting it out! Crying can benefit your mind and body (it’s science) by detoxifying it and even helping dull pain.
If you’re in a safe space, you could even scream, punch a pillow, or tear up paper. All of these put the feeling into motion and help you get un-stuck.
2. Use positive physical cues, like hot showers or deep breathing, to calm yourself down.
These cues can involve deep breathing, yoga, hot tea or coffee, or the aforementioned cozy blanket. Personally, I prefer hot showers, because they’re not just relaxing but also cleansing. You can even use a little visualization: As you shower, picture yourself scrubbing away the negativity and inviting in more positive vibes.
Think about the physical sensations or rituals that make you feel calm, centered, and more relaxed. If you make it a point to use them whenever you’re overwhelmed by a negative emotion, your body will start to associate the physical cue with the healing process, and you’ll begin to feel better almost immediately.
3. Avoid negative emotional triggers, like the news or negative people.
You know what doesn’t help negativity? More negativity. No matter where it comes from or how well-intentioned it might be.
Think of healing from negative emotions like healing from a scrape. There’s going to be a scab and a sore spot for a while. If you rub that spot, even just a little, the scab is likely to break and you’ll have to start all over (usually with even more pain). So you need to avoid any kind of stressors when you’re dealing with negative feelings.
Personally, I try to avoid the news because it’s almost always so negative. I also try to avoid people who are always looking for something to complain about or who focus on the negatives. Look at the people in your life and think about how you feel after you spend time with them. If you consistently feel worse after seeing a particular person, it’s time to make some adjustments — can you manage your time with them differently or just spend less (or no) time with them? If you can’t avoid some people, like a coworker or your mother-in-law, learn to set healthy boundaries.
4. Watch out for “black and white thinking.”
Often, when we’re stuck in a negative emotion, it’s because it feels huge and overwhelming — like we either have to take on the world all on our own, or our problem will roll over us no matter what we do. This is called “black and white thinking,” according to Healthline, which is the tendency to think in extremes: I am a brilliant success or I am an utter failure. It’s a cognitive distortion that can make negative feelings worse; you might catch yourself falling into this all-or-nothing mindset when you use words like “always” or “never,” and “ruined” or “perfect.” Often, the truth is somewhere in between.
So, when you can only see two options, remind yourself of reality: There are always options, and several ways to solve your problem. You may want to make a list of those options, starting with three alternatives.
Also, remind yourself that you can never control exactly what happens in any given situation, so just go ahead and take that burden off yourself right now. Then ask: What do I control? What can I do? This is usually when you stop feeling powerless and start to see a path forward.
5. Feed your basic needs, not just your heart.
I know I tend to feel more negative emotions when I’m tired, haven’t eaten properly, or feel stressed out. Emotions can seem all-consuming, but they live in your body; even though it’s just a “feeling,” they create physical reactions within you, such as increasing cortisol (the stress hormone) or amping up your heart rate. Taking care of your body is an important step to dealing with negative emotions.
It sounds too simple to be true, but it really does help: Eat regular healthy meals, exercise, drink lots of water, and get enough sleep. These are basic, and chances are, one of them will be more of a keystone for you than the others. Exercise, for example, releases feel-good endorphins and protects your body from the harmful effects of stress by strengthening your cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems. Sleep is crucial for highly sensitive people to “clear out” negative emotions and process their experiences — and they may need a little more of it than other people.
Remember: Life would be boring if we only felt positive and happy. Negative emotions are there to balance you out, teach you a lesson, and help you feel grateful for the happy times. But that doesn’t mean you need to stay stuck in them.
You might like:
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
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This article was originally published on Highly Sensitive Refuge, our community for HSPs.
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