Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
“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
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
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
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
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,