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Vibrant Days…. 

Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity

August 2015



“Regulating” Fear, Grief, Anger, and Joy

“Emotional regulation” is a fancy psychological term that

refers to any method that you might try, consciously or not,

to change the otherwise spontaneous flow of your emotions.

By this definition, you might want to increase, prolong, or

decrease a feeling. Because the human brain is designed to

do this quite well, and the HSP’s brain even more so, you

already know quite a bit about emotional regulation, just by

having lived awhile. But it never hurts to make it more


Emotional regulation is a broad topic, as almost anything

can increase, prolong, or shorten an emotion. To increase or

prolong an emotion, mostly we need to continue to think

about or stay mentally or physically near what started it.

Keep mulling it over. It also helps to be feeling it with

someone else who also wants to increase or prolong it, as

when we are laughing together or crying together. The most

familiar ways for decreasing emotions mentally are

distraction and redirecting or reframing your thoughts about

what is happening. Almost any physical change, which changes

your bodily state, changes your emotions: meditation,

exercise, eating, drinking or taking other “mood altering”

medications and substances. You can and do use social means

as well: Telling someone else how you feel often decreases

the feeling in the long run, but so does deliberately going

out among people with whom you habitually hide your deeper

feelings. It’s a long list, but

since stopping certain emotions is frequently our desire,

there are always more tricks to learn and we’ll get to a


I have never been one for squelching natural feelings. They

are the messages about what’s really going on inside us and

around us. Repress that and not only do you miss important

knowledge, but the bottled up physical reaction can be

channeled into chronic illnesses.

On the other hand, feeling emotionally stressed and out of

control is also not good for us for many reasons, and there

are times when we just do not want a strong emotional

reaction. So we have to find the right balance between

opening up to feelings and controlling them. Most of us tend

to lean one way, so that balance is always a challenge.

Often there is one emotion that’s easy for us to know and

regulate, and one that will be challenging our entire life.

It is always a good idea to know what you are feeling and

how much you feel it, whether you show it outwardly or not.

When you don’t know, your dreams will often tell you “the

rest of the story.” Roughly, the more emotion you feel in a

dream, the more that particular emotion is going on in you

but not being fully realized. That makes nightmares, for

example, very valuable for self-understanding and ultimately

for self-regulation.

Once you know what you feel, however, it is quite right to

have some control over where, how, and how long you deal

with it. It’s good to have some tools so that you can

prolong the joy, happiness, and curiosity, but not feel

negative emotions past their usefulness (although they all

have their uses or at least good reasons for occurring). The

purpose of emotional regulation, however, is more than to

feel good. Sometimes we want to alter how we feel in order

to work better or accomplish a goal (e.g., staying calm

helps you get a child dressed for school; getting madder

convinces someone you mean it).

Even more interesting, sometimes we try to make certain ways

of regulating our emotions a habit, in order to have the

kind of personality we want. If we want our character to be

calm, fun to be with, compassionate, optimistic, friendly,

or simply authentic, we try to shape our emotions in that

direction. I imagine that HSPs work especially hard on this

refining of emotional responses and are probably better at

it, so that maybe people say not just that you are highly

sensitive, but “you’re SO calm” or “you’re really hilarious”

or “you are a truly compassionate person,” indicating your

success at refining your character in the emotional

direction of your choice.

Fortunately, HSPs are not more emotional in the sense of

getting more volatile or physiologically intense than

others, unless they grew up in homes where there was very

little emotional regulation. Generally, the research does

not show increased activation in HSPs in areas of the brain

related to “primitive emotion” (again, this can vary with

childhood experiences–for example, HSPs are more prone to

anxiety and depression if they had a difficult childhood).

Rather than getting more “all stirred up” than others, we

tend to process emotional experiences more in “higher” parts

of the brain, the ones designed precisely for emotional

regulation. Again, this “higher” type of “strong” emotional

response also allows us to shape our emotional personalities

much more than if we were all reflexive reaction.

Let’s look at four examples of processing emotions in an

advantageous way.

Fear: Choosing When to Feel It

We usually want to “down regulate” fear. But fear is a very

primitive emotion, designed to save us from danger, so it is

perhaps the most difficult to regulate. If it is a life or

death matter, such as waiting for a medical report as to

whether you have a terminal illness, I doubt you can do much

to control your fear except distract yourself temporarily.

But if you have something you fear in a more irrational way,

like flying or going to the dentist or public speaking,

first decide if you can do anything to alleviate your fears.

You might read about the actual statistical risk of death in

an airplane (very, very slight) or think about all the

flight crews who fly an entire lifetime and are still

around. If you fear going to the dentist, you find one known

to be especially understanding of and skilled with pain

sensitivity. In short, you prepare as thoroughly as


Then try this: Rather than attempt to have no fear, decide

on the time when you will be anxious, and postpone your

anxiety until then so that you can live your life enjoyably

up to that hour. You can decide, “I will be anxious the day

I fly” or “when I take my seat;” “I will be anxious starting

when I go into the dentist office;” “I will be anxious the

day of the talk.” By not processing your fear in the back of

your mind during this long period, you may find you feel

less of it when the time comes. But that is not the goal.

The goal is simply not to be overrun by a fear of something

you know you will do anyway.

Grief: Anticipatory Grief is not so Bad

I have noticed that HSPs look ahead in all sorts of ways,

especially to things they will have to cope with, and that

includes loss. Hence we tend to grieve things in advance. On

the last day of a vacation my husband will wake up and say,

“Gee, I feel kind of down.” It turns out he’s sad that our

vacation is ending. I felt sad about that when we reached

the halfway point. By now I have accepted it and turned my

attention to what I will be doing when I get home. Have I

ruined my vacation because of it? Not if I can feel it, then

put it aside. I just felt it earlier. I couldn’t help it.

Most of us have thought about how we would manage if we lost

someone important in our lives, but I suspect HSPs have

given more thought to that–not just the practical side if

the person was gone, but the emotional hole that would be

left. We work on it, hoping to find a certain sense of

resolution or reassurance that we would survive. Maybe we

look ahead to it being horribly hard. We would never “get

over it.” We would be awash in pain, for a long time. But

maybe we see that in time we would survive. We have

envisioned it. For others, grief and its outcome often seem

to come as almost a complete surprise (unless we bring the

subject up).

Is anticipatory grief good or bad? I guess it just is, but

it also feels to me, intuitively, like at least not a bad

thing. We are exploring how we will regulate something far

in advance, and to do what we need to get some idea about

what it will be like. Maybe we want to begin shaping our

personality now towards greater equanimity. A non-sensitive

person might think it crazy to worry about something so far

in the future, but they are not us. We do need to find a way

to “hold” our vision of future grief, however, and one

metaphor is to think of it as behind a glass door that we

can see through, yet is closed so that we are not living

with it fully. I wrote this in Comfort Zone in 2007, about

aging, another thing we anticipate. I can’t say it better


Flowery denial [or any kind of denial] does not work for

HSPs. We notice our bodily changes with as much keenness as

any other subtlety, and we have our stronger-than-others’

emotional reactions to it. Sometimes talking about it helps,

but sometimes it just further erodes the soul’s sense of

personal purpose and destiny. So, although we cannot put

aging into some optimist’s vault for all things unpleasant,

perhaps we need a glass door between it and us–a

determination not to let the end of life ruin the rest of

life. We know it is there, we can see it all the time, it

reminds us to be in the present and leave no important words

left unsaid, but we must keep a certain necessary barrier.

Anger: Processing Works

I once asked HSPs in a survey whether they tended to be less

angry than others, and their answers did not indicate a

difference. That was a bit of a relief, as I think we HSPs

need our anger to maintain our boundaries. But I imagine

that, compared to others, most of the time we process the

situation before we express our anger. Not always, of

course, and occasionally a spontaneous outburst can be a

good thing. But “down regulating” anger often takes you

closer to your ultimate goal of getting what you want

because you pause long enough to notice what is going on and

consider the best strategy.

Anger, like fear, is generally designed to create a swift

response. When we are angry, we HSPs swiftly start thinking

of what we want to say, write, or do. We rush to process it!

The more time we leave for that, the better our ultimate

action. It’s very useful to wait 24 hours, for example,

before responding to criticism. But you probably already do

that, because you have had some of these experiences: (a)

The criticism was justified, but you could only see that

after you got over your shame and defensiveness; (b) it was

not about you but the other person’s stress or complex; (c)

you misunderstood what was said; or (d) the person felt

ashamed and cleared things up or apologized before you had

to say a thing, and it was good that you didn’t.

In other cases we need to consciously “up regulate” our

anger. Anger is the “moral emotion” because it causes us to

set boundaries so that the other person will not cross ours

and in so doing violate an ethical or moral value. Most

ethics, after all, are about boundaries. You can’t have

what’s mine. You can’t cut in front of me. You can’t take up

my rightful space. You must play fair so that I also get a

chance. You can’t say things about me that are not true.

Etcetera. People without boundaries cannot assert those

things. They allow others to walk all over them, thereby

actually encouraging others to behave badly. Unfair or not,

it’s usually the victim who has to speak up first if

injustices are going to end. Sometimes we have to work

ourselves up into a state of righteous indignation just to

do the right thing.

Joy: An Ode, I Wish

Have you listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony lately? The

last movement? It puts to music Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.”

(You can read the English translation of that. The last

stanzas have convinced some people that Beethoven was not

one of us but from another planet!) I understand that the

tune was just a beer house song. But what he did with it.

Beethoven was deaf by the time it was heard by others, and

very ill. He conducted the orchestra the first time it was

played in public, but I understand that they had to ignore

him pretty much. He couldn’t hear his own music. No wonder

he was a grouch and ruined almost every relationship he ever


However, the man still understood joy, and so can we. I’m

sure many of you have seen this video, put out by a bank, I

understand. But it does capture the sheer joy of that


Joy is something that we stumble upon, often through the

arts, or relationships, or nature. We need to remember these

experiences and foster them, promote them, and share them.

They are truly what make life worth living. How to do that?

Expose yourself to art, especially poetry and music, but

whatever you like. Roger Housden’s collection, Dancing with

Joy, 99 Poems, is one place to begin.

Art doesn’t have to be joyful to create joy, as long as it

stirs in you a wonderful feeling about being alive. A recent

novel that did that for me was Out Stealing Horses by Per

Patterson. But art is all a matter of taste. What I like

might not give you joy at all.

Once exposed to something that has given you joy, savor what

pleased you and describe it to those others who will not

squelch you but enjoy with you (the best sort of friends to

have). Don’t forget to laugh with others, too. It can be the

greatest joy, and interestingly, to laugh usually requires

being with at least one other person.

Another simple source of joy is to get in touch with your

younger self. What did he or she en-joy? Then do more of


Finally, try seeing your everyday reality in an utterly

different way. Did you ever take psychedelic drugs? If you

did, you know what it’s like to see everything as if for the

first time, and to see into things as if they are alive and

speaking to you, for good or ill. Well, everything is

speaking to you when you enliven it with your human

consciousness, which we do all the time anyway. We can only

see the world through our consciousness. But usually we see

in a way that dulls because the mind says, “I know what this

is–I’ve seen it many times.” But have you seen it?

Everything around us is enchanted. It can be. If you look

through the surface to the hidden secret. Try it. I find it

can make the most boring moment joyful.

I was sitting on a bench in the NY subway, one of the least

joy-filled, most dulling places I know. I decided to switch

to looking beneath the surface. Across the tracks there were

tiles on the wall. Some I already knew to be quite pretty,

even if coated with grime. They spell out the number of the

street where this station was, 42nd, inside of a box of

various shades of blue green. I have focused on them many

times for this purpose. What I had ignored was the seemingly

boring expanse of white tiles beneath, and beneath those the

red and white diagonal stripes signaling danger. In some

stations these are painted, but in this one the stripes are

made of tiles–each has two solid red ones plus others

divided along the diagonal into red and white to fit where

needed to make a stripe as crisp as if painted. It’s hard to

explain, but when I saw how clever it was and geometrically

pleasing, it was a little moment of joy. Telling you about

it, the joy of the memory is even greater.

People can be the biggest, most complicated sources of joy,

as you know. Children are a little less complicated, animals

even less. What joy an animal can bring. A flower? Sheer,

uncomplicated joy. But you know all that.

What brings you joy and how can you “up regulate” that in

your life? Every moment of life is something–sad, scary,

boring, shameful, etc. We HSPs are able to feel so much.

Pluck some good moments out of what’s around you. Don’t feel

guilty when you don’t, but realize you may at times have a


-Elaine Aron, Ph.D


Self Regulation



Feelings are an important part of how

humans create meaning and motivate behavior, but they are

never the only important – and rarely the most important –

aspect of the meaning-behavior complex. Indeed, focus on

feelings without regard to values will more likely lead to

addictions and compulsions than beneficial behavior.

-Steven Stosny, Ph.D.


You’ve probably seen this already. I could watch it every day just to hear last line!

In this together,