Emotional Sensitivity and the Biology Underneath

Ever wonder why you feel so sensitive? Why even the littlest thing sends you off on an emotional roller coaster? It may have something to do with how you were born and how you grew up.

The Biology of sensitivity

People are born with different inherent levels of sensitivity. Some are able to shrug things off easily while others feel hurts deeply. Biological factors can influence your sensitivity even before you are born. For example if a woman is ill during pregnancy, the fetus is exposed to that illness and later in life becomes vulnerable to external messages and experiences. A similar thing happens if the mom-to-be is very stressed out.  The stress hormone cortisol is released in mom's system and crosses the placenta. The fetus is bathed in cortisol, which amps up the nervous system and makes it more sensitive to outside stimuli or stressors later in life. It's no one's fault, It just happens.

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Effects of the environment

As babies we have no ability to manage our own emotions. That's why babies need to be held, rocked, and soothed. Through those experiences of being soothed by mom, dad or auntie, babies learn to take care of their own emotions. This is actually a biological process that happens in the brain. During the first years of life neurons are developing at an incredible rate and the pathways that connect those neurons are developing too. Your brain is modeled on the brains of the people who cared for you as a baby. If your caregiver knew how to manage their emotions, they unconsciously teach you. If they weren't able to manage their own emotions, through no fault of their own, then chances are you never learned either. Now imagine that a fetus was exposed to stress and cortisol, or an ill mom in the womb. That baby is born to a mom who is stressed or perhaps still sick and she can't give the baby the emotional regulation that the baby needs. BAM - you get hypersensitivity.

There's another part to this story though. Take a sensitive child, add a caregiver that can't manage their own emotions and then add in some invalidating behaviors toward that child and you have the recipe for a person with very intense emotions and very little ability to regulate them. It's both biological and environmental.

What is invalidating behavior?

"Get over it."

"Don't be such a cry baby."

"It wasn't that bad."

"You're just tired."

"If you're going to cry I'll give you something to cry about."

These are called invalidating statements. Basically, invalidation means to dismiss someone's feelings as not being real. While you might not think that the emotions make sense or should be as intense as they are, they are still very real to the child (or adult) feeling those emotions. When feelings are invalidated, the result is shame and either burying the emotions or intensifying them.

In psychology there's a concept of the "good enough parent". Basically that means that no one is perfect. There's some level of invalidation in every family. The problem comes when the invalidation is pervasive, or when you get the perfect storm of all (or many) of the factors already mentioned. A genetically sensitive fetus born to a stressed or sick mom, flooded with stress hormone cortisol, with a caregiver who can't model good emotion regulation skills growing up in an invalidating environment. Is it any wonder that you feel emotions so intensely? There's nothing wrong with you, it's just how you were born and how you were raised.

The good news

Emotion regulation, or the ability to calm your own emotions, can be learned later in life even if you didn't get it as a child. Research shows that even in later life our brains have neuroplasticity - that means that they can change. With directed attention from mindfulness practice, along with learning self soothing and coping skills, you can learn to cope with overwhelming emotions and even change them. Check out an earlier blog post I wrote that has some tips for regulating emotions - When Emotions Take Over. One powerful approach to this is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

If you have questions or just want to talk about some of these ideas, drop me a line.