Do you get overwhelmed by your emotions? You might be going about your day, and suddenly, an interaction sparks a strong feeling. Your fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. Your heart starts pounding, your muscles tense and your breath becomes shallow.
But your environment isn’t the only thing that triggers your emotions. Because you have a very rich inner life, your thoughts or memories serve as triggers, too.
Psychotherapist Joy Malek, M.S., shared the above examples. She calls individuals who feel emotions deeply and intensely “Deep Feelers.”
Deep Feelers also tend to be imaginative and sensitive, which colors the storylines they create, she said. Everyone creates storylines: interpretations (often unconscious) for what triggered you. Deep Feelers’ storylines are frequently filled with “rapture, despair, and everything in between.”
What causes some people to feel emotions so deeply?
Temperament may play a role. “[M]ost Deep Feelers are wired to experience the world first and foremost through their emotions. And this can create strong inner responses to life events.” On theMyers-Briggs personality test, they’re called “Feelers” (versus “Thinkers”), she said.
Deep Feelers also might be highly sensitive people. Highly sensitive people are especially susceptible to physical and emotional stimuli. (See here, here and here.) “For those with high sensitivity, strong emotional responses are natural and need to be processed in order to metabolize them,” Malek said.
Being a Deep Feeler is both a strength and a challenge. Deep Feelers are empathic, intuitive and attuned, she said. This makes them exceptional friends, partners and parents, she said.
“However, feeling deeply can also be a source of overwhelm. Being constantly and intensely tuned in to your own and others’ emotions can be overloading.” Malek shared this example: Your loved one is angry with you. You end up feeling an overwhelming sense of shame and failure because of the specific storyline you created about why they’re upset. Because of your anguish, you lose perspective and become consumed by fear and despair. You also believe that the relationship is irrevocably broken (which often is not the case).
Most Deep Feelers use emotions as a compass. They alert “them when something is wrong or [reassure them] that all is well.” For instance, if Deep Feelers are experiencing painful feelings, they interpret things as very, very wrong, Malek said.
“Because Deep Feelers need time to process big emotions, their emotional ‘pipes’ can get backed up. Then the feelings are just zinging around inside instead of being metabolized.” Here, it’s tough for Deep Feelers to imagine a time when they won’t be feeling this badly.
Below Malek shared five healthy strategies to help you process your emotions — so you don’t get derailed by them.
1. Take a break.
“When a big emotion hits, it’s OK to ask for time to process before discussing it with someone else,” said Malek, founder of SoulFull, where she offers psychotherapy, coaching and creative workshops. You might need time to identify what you’re feeling. Knowing your exact emotion helps you “bring clarity to the conversation.”
2. Explore the storyline behind your emotion.
When you’re experiencing a painful emotion, Malek suggested asking yourself: “What’s the storyline here?” At first you might identify all sorts of stories. But typically one or two will emerge as the most persistent, she said.
For instance, your storyline might be: “I’m not important to others,” “Everything is out of my control,” “No matter how hard I try, I always fail,” “People leave; no one will stay,” or “I’m not good enough.”
Just naming your storyline can help you gain some distance from it, Malek said. Identifying it also reminds you that your “interpretation is not the objective truth.” Understanding the root of your storyline minimizes its power, as well, Malek said. A therapist can help you explore what happened in your development to create this interpretation, she said.
3. Have a list of go-to distractions.
“Distraction techniques help [you] regulate intense emotions,” Malek said. When we’re in the throes of a fight, flight or freeze response, it’s hard to think logically and problem solve. Using a distraction technique helps you refocus while your nervous system settles down.
These techniques can be anything that capture your attention so you’re not ruminating about your painful feeling, she said. This might be playing a game on your phone or watching an interesting TV segment.
4. Explore alternate storylines.
“Once your nervous system has settled, you can begin to explore alternative storylines that will enable you to transform your perspective,” Malek said. She suggested asking yourself these questions:
- What can I take away from this experience that will make me wiser or increase my compassion?
- If I look at this experience in the context of my whole life’s story, what does this add? What will I say about it looking back 10, 20, 30 years from now?
- How will I use this experience to understand and help others?
- What qualities can I bring to this situation to give myself dignity and pride? For instance, these qualities might be courage, compassion and creativity. “Acknowledging the personal qualities, or resources, that one can bring to painful situations is very empowering.” For instance, you might consider: “How can I use courage here?” or “Could there be a creative approach to this problem?”
5. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation trains our brains to stay in the moment, rather than ruminating about the past or fretting about the future. Both are big triggers for painful feelings, Malek said.
“Mindfulness also helps us learn to pause when we are triggered, and to hold our storylines lightly.” These make a big difference in helping Deep Feelers have more balance and not feel as blindsided by emotions, she said.
Malek’s favorite practice is something she calls “Cat Mind.” It’s inspired by how our pets use their senses to be fully present in each moment. To practice this, she suggested noticing your surroundings. “When storylines and painful thoughts slip in and begin to rev up your feelings, pull yourself back to this moment, here.” Refocus on what you see and hear.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling emotions deeply. This can be a good thing. But sometimes, as a Deep Feeler, you might get overwhelmed. Trying tips like the above can help.