If you are working on developing new coping skills, you may find that understanding the skills and how they work is much easier than actually using the skills. You may be able to tell someone else about the skill, write out the steps involved, and answer questions about it but find you do not use it in your life. You may find that you keep going back to familiar ways of dealing with emotions and stress, even when those old ways are not good for you in the long run.
Emotionally sensitive people react to events quickly and with intense emotions, and then have difficulty getting their emotional reactions to subside. Finding ways to manage emotions effectively can decrease the pain they experience.
Below are some suggestions for coping with intense emotions.
1. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and stress for everyone. Consider a way to practice mindfulness everyday that is easy to remember. Maybe mindfully brush your teeth or mindfully drink your coffee. Consider using a bracelet or a sticky note to remind yourself.
2: Play. If possible, find a way to laugh today. Be silly. Giggle. Dance, watch a comedy, run in the park, buy a balloon, dabble with paints, gather friends for games or play games designed for one player. Just for a few minutes. Enjoy a simple pleasure and focus completely on the activity – not on your concerns.
While it’s not true for everyone, many emotionally sensitive people tend to use food as self-comfort. Eating is one of those strategies that works in the short-term but can have long-term consequences that add to your stress level.
When you go into your closet and nothing fits, that’s a miserable feeling. When your chest is tight and you feel so stuffed with food you can’t move, that’s miserable too.
One of the reasons that emotionally sensitive people use food as comfort is likely due to cortisol. Cortisol’s job is to get you all prepared to fight that tiger lurking outside your cave. It gets your energy up by increasing your heart rate and the blood pumping to your muscles. Cortisol tells the body to release sugar to bloodstream, which is why when you’re upset about your boss criticizing you at work, your body is all on alert to fight, as if there were a tiger about to attack.
You just want to calm down and get rid of this tension and agitation, so you stop at the grocery for cookies, potato chips and dark chocolate ice cream. One of the reasons for this is that high levels of cortisol can create cravings for high fat and sweet foods. High cortisol reactors have been shown to eat more food.
Not acting on impulse and thinking through how your actions in the short-term will affect your long term goals will decreae the suffering that you experience.
The good news is that some of the most effective strategies are everyday actions that are only surprising in terms of their effectivenss.
Ways to Strengthen Self-Control
Slowing Your Breath: Slowing your breathing to four to six breaths per minute will activate the prefrontal cortex and increase heart rate variability which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control. When you are in stress mode, you are not able to think as clearly.
Self-control or willpower is the ability to effectively manage your attention, emotions and desires. Understanding how willpower works can help you better manage your emotions and make the changes you want to make in your life.
When you are working to build more effective coping skills, you may find that no matter how strong your commitment to practicing new ways of soothing yourself, solving problems effectively, or managing your intense emotions in healthier ways, you fall back into old patterns.
Falling back can be discouraging and you may blame yourself for not having enough willpower or stick-to-it-ness. As we noted in the last post, self-control has nothing to do with your character. It’s a limited resource for everyone. We have to practice and keep going, recognizing that having lapses is just part of developing new behaviors and skills.
If we know some of the ways to enhance our self-control while we are practicing new behaviors, that can help too.
Emotionally sensitive people are often advised to exercise to calm their anxiety or to help overcome depression. Grandmothers, psychiatrists, friends and even strangers often suggest, “Exercise. You’ll feel better.”
In our recent survey, 71.4% of the emotionally sensitive have found exercise helpful in managing their mood. Turns out the research, as reported by John Ratey, MD in his book Spark, shows exercise has a strong effect on mood as well as other important functions of the brain.
Exercise is effective in treating anxiety and panic. Getting active provides a distraction, reduces muscle tension, builds brain resources (increases and balances serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all important neurotransmitters involved in mood), improves resilience by showing you that you can be effective in controlling anxiety, and breaks the feeling of being trapped and immobilized.
The effects can be equal or even better than medication. The problem is that when people are upset or depressed, they don’t want to exercise.
Establishing a regular exercise program, one that you could maintain when your mood was unpleasant, may be part of the answer. Continuing a routine when you are emotionally dysregulated is easier than starting a new activity. Regular exercise would also help prevent relapse.
Good habits help you save your brain power. You don’t have to decide or think about brushing your teeth, you just do it. When people who have been depressed or living chaotically work on self-care and hygiene, they don’t have these good habits and must use a lot of energy to establish them. That’s difficult.
But what seems even more difficult is changing habits that are harmful to us or don’t serve us well. Sometimes habits aren’t helpful to us and we need to change them.
Dopamine is that wonderful chemical that helps us recognize an opportunity to feel good. Dopamine release is about craving, wanting and seeking. Those sensations are all very different from liking, loving or being happy.
When a rat’s dopamine system is wiped out, he’ll still love the taste of sugar if you give it to him, but he won’t work to get it. Dopamine is what spurs us to work to get what we think will make us feel good.
Dopamine is about anticipation of a reward, not the actual experiencing of a reward. Brian Knutson did brain scans on humans who knew that when a certain symbol appeared on a computer screen that they would be given money. The interesting result was that the dopamine releasing pleasure center of the brain lit up when they saw the symbol, but not when they got the actual reward.
This theory is about neighborhoods and safety. Wilson and Kelling believed that the appearance of neighborhoods made a difference in preventing criminal activity. They proposed that the environment communicated to people information on what behavior was appropriate.
Broken windows and graffiti were signals to people that a neighborhood was deteriorating and breaking the law was acceptable.
A research study completed years ago has always fascinated me. In the 1960’s Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson administered a test to all students in an elementary school and gave the results to the teachers. They told the teachers that based on the test results some students were particularly likely to excel academically in the upcoming year whereas others were not.
The “gifted” students were actually chosen by drawing names out of a hat, not by their performance on the test. In fact, the test was bogus and didn’t really measure anything. At the end of the year the students identified as gifted scored significantly higher on an actual IQ test than students who weren’t labeled as gifted, though in truth there was no difference in the groups at the beginning of the year.
That is an amazing result. The authors believed that the only way this could have happened is through a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of the teachers. The students themselves did not know they had been designated as high-achievers (or not) and neither did their parents. Only the teachers knew. The researchers believed that the teachers’ expectations caused them to act in ways that improved the performance of the students who were labeled as being intellectually brighter.