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  • Christy A. George, LMFT, SEP

Harness and Understand Emotional Intensity

angry boy, tantrum, sensitive, emotional

Are some people born more sensitive than others? Some researchers have noted gifted and highly gifted people may have numerous personality traits that make them different from average people and these traits are not necessarily associated with their intelligence. Some of these characteristics are actually due to having more sensitive and attuned minds, resulting in intense emotions and feelings.

In fact, their heightened emotional awareness, intense introspection and sensitivity are likely part of their natural development as gifted people. Unfortunately, society, peers and family can underestimate and misunderstand them. They may not even fully understand themselves.

Picture this scenario, a healthy and bright baby is born to nurturing parents. The baby’s needs are met, they’re loved. From the beginning they have an intense personality. When they’re happy they are adorable, and when they’re angry, watch out! As this bright little child grows, they feel so much. Every day is the best or worst day of their lives. They care about the world around them with so much love and connection, even the tiniest of creatures are a big part of their world and the receivers of deep empathy. The killing of a spider in your home could indeed trigger a crying meltdown.

The child continues to grow, and is unusually connected to the world around them. They are exceptionally aware of how they are treated by others, how others treat one another and the state of the universe that surrounds them. Each day, the child comes home from school with complex interpretations of their school day, their peers and teachers with endless questions, emotional ups and downs and fatigue.

These patterns come more complex through puberty and the teen years, and settle a little into early adulthood as their brains near full development. The emotional intensity doesn't necessarily subside completely with adulthood, however. Many gifted adults continue to feel immensely, but may have developed strategies for managing their intense emotions, expressing themselves in socially acceptable ways and for managing stress that might trigger their intensity. They may have also found ways to utilize their deep emotions and intense drives to propel their personal development.

Life experiences, genetics, and supportive relationships can shape how a person internalizes and expresses their emotions. How a sensitive and deeply feeling person learns to manage and regulate their complex emotions can affect if they connect with others, or opt out of relationships. It can contribute to the development of anxiety and/or depression. It can also be key to building resilience and the ability to harness their emotional powerhouse, to lead a full and meaningful life.

If you are a gifted person, or the parent or spouse of a gifted person who is exceptionally sensitive, you understand how dramatic and difficult life can be. You also understand how intensely beautiful it can be. The goal shouldn't be to change the person, but instead to provide a framework for understanding them, and helping them to navigate, process and contain feelings when they become overwhelming.

Some overarching ideas to keep in mind are: empathy goes a long way, deep breathing (and long exhales) help almost every intense situation, use your words with kindness even if they are firm. If your are one who goes to extremes, trying to live your life in moderation when possible can make a huge difference. That said, your deep passions can also guide you to greatness. It's really about finding a balance you can live with.

Here are some ways you can employ the ideas suggested:

1. Try to stay calm yourself. If you react with emotional intensity to the other person, it will likely escalate the situation. If needed, remove yourself from the situation momentarily to regroup.

2. Teach and show empathy by giving words to complex feelings. This teaches children especially, how to recognize what they are feeling, and provides emotional validation. Validating emotions does not mean you agree, just that you understand what they are feeling, which can de-escalate many situations. If you want to take this a step further, you can also give instructions about what to do with the emotion, and/or offer support. Remember, it is important to recognize and validate your own emotions as well. Here are some examples to use with your gifted child, your spouse, and yourself: “You seem really sad. Do you need a hug?” or "How can I help?" “I can see you’re pretty angry right now. Let’s take some deep breaths together and then talk about it.” “That sounds overwhelming. How did you handle it?” or “That looks overwhelming, let’s break it into chunks so it's more manageable.” “I know you feel really hurt. Sometimes my feelings get hurt too. How can I help?” “I’m so angry right now. I need a minute to calm down.” “I feel really sad, and hurt. I could use a hug right now.” “I feel nervous about going to that party. Let’s make a plan, in case I need to leave early.”

3. Help yourself or your loved one to stop, breath and think about what they’re going to do before acting on intense emotions, and if you know beforehand you will be entering into a situation which will be emotionally triggering or exhausting have a plan, which includes an exist strategy.

4. Recognize and help yourself or your loved one to realize emotions have a purpose. Exploring the meaning of the emotion, can provide valuable information, and have a calming effect.

5. Talking through concerns with another person can help. If you are helping someone else talk through their feelings, also try to focus on their strengths, and empowerment, while still acknowledging the emotion they are communicating . I know this can sound like a lot, but it is helpful and possible to do. For example: “You sound so frustrated by your day today. Dealing with other people can be a real challenge. Unfortunately, we really can’t control what other people do, but we can control what we do and how we react. How did you handle the situation?” “I can tell you are really afraid you’re going to die some day. Sometimes I worry about that too. It’s okay. You know, we’re here right now, together. Let’s be in this moment together and notice what’s around us. . . . Would you like to talk more about your feelings?” “You’re such a caring person, and I love that you care about the world so much. Let’s think of some ways you can be a part of helping the world to be a better place and do it.”

6. Help yourself or your loved one to focus on the opposite emotion in intense situations. For example:If you’re afraid think of something safe. If you’re intensely sad, think of something you enjoy. If you’re angry, breath and think of something calming.

Remember we don’t live in a black and white, with or against, one way or the other kind of world. There are many feelings, options and colors in between. Helping yourself or your loved one to consider these nuances can be calming, and helpful in attaining emotional regulation. One way to do this is to consider alternative or multiple possibilities to any given situation. Rarely is there only one perspective or answer. This can help you to keep things in proportion, create viable solutions to problems, and direct the emotional drives toward something helpful to self and others.

In addition to the sensitivity that may come with being gifted, emotional intensity and heightened sensitivity can result from developmental disabilities, different types of trauma, life stress, and various mental health issues. These problems should first be considered, and ruled out by a knowledgeable and experienced professional if your emotional sensitivity is causing significant impairment in your life, or your child’s life, to make sure any underlying problems are being addressed.

If you or someone you know has difficulty managing their emotional intensity, don’t hesitate to ask for help. When possible, seek the help of a therapist who is educated and experienced in the needs of gifted people to avoid misdiagnosis, misattunement and misunderstanding. It is also important to seek someone who will bring out the best in you and your child. If you are looking for a therapist in your area, is a good resource to find qualified professionals and parent support groups in your area.

About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has approximately 10 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body.

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