What can turn emotional sensitivity into emotional dysregulation?

DBT-C, English, Supersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

According to research, 15% to 30% of people are highly sensitive. This includes emotional, physiological and social sensitivity. Highly sensitive people process information more intensely. This presents them with challenges as well as benefits. The challenges can include high reactivity and slow return to baseline, when seemingly insignificant issues can provoke a big emotional reaction that may last for a long time. They may also get more easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud sounds, smell, taste and touch. On the other hand, highly sensitive people can also experience positive emotions to a high level, read other people emotions like human X-rays, and have increased capacities for empathy and creativity. Being born with high sensitivity does not automatically mean significant problems in life. Not all emotionally sensitive people become emotionally dysregulated and develop problems in their ability to function in the daily life. However, they are indeed at an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety or personality disorders. So, what can turn emotional sensitivity into emotional dysregulation?

Biosocial Model

Emotionally sensitive children (we call them supersensers) may present with more needs than children with average emotionality, as sensitivity is the opposite of resiliency, which is a capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilient children are like ducks in the water, things just rolls down the feathers. Supersensers are more like rocks that immediately drown. Resiliency can also be described as an inborn strong psychological immunity. Within this simile, supersensers are born with weak psychological immunity and need to learn to acquire it. 

Parents of supersensers may not be prepared to effectively deal with challenges of emotional sensitivity, as children are not born with instructions. Most parents of supersensers are capable, loving, and well-meaning. This is especially evident in families with several children, where a supersenser is climbing walls, so to speak, while her siblings are doing very well. “Good-enough parenting” that works well for more resilient children, may just not be good enough for supersensers. 

The Biosocial Model indicated that this transaction between a sensitive child with extra needs and the environment’s inability to satisfy these needs may result in two products: emotional dysregulation and invalidating environment. 

Invalidating environment

An environment is described as invalidating when it indiscriminately and pervasively labels a child’s responses (e.g., thoughts, feelings and behaviors) as not making sense or invalid. For example, a child is crying after punching a friend who broke her favorite toy. A mother tells the child that she should never punch her friends and that there is nothing to cry about. The first statement invalidates the invalid (i.e., indeed physical aggression is not an effective way to resolve problems), while the second statement invalidates the valid (i.e., sadness is a valid response to a loss). 

The reasons why an environment may start rejecting a child’s reactions stem from the main characteristics of emotional sensitivity – high reactivity and slow return to baseline. As we said,  frequently these reactions come seemingly out of the blue, are not proportional in their intensity to a stressor and may last much longer than can be anticipated. So indeed, reactions may not make sense to the parents.

Emotional dysregulation

When the environment is not able to adequately deal with the challenges of emotional sensitivity, it destabilizes the child. A more destabilized child continues to stretch an environment’s ability to respond adequately, which leads to further destabilization of the child, and so forth. Thus, an invalidating environment is usually not a starting point but a result of the transaction between child’s needs and parental inability to meet these needs. In turn, the transaction between an emotionally sensitive child and invalidating environment, over time may lead to the development of emotional dyregulation and psychopathology. Indeed, research shows that such children are at an increased risk to develop alcohol and substance use problems, suicidality and non-suicidal self-injury, depression, anxiety, and personality disorders in adolescence and adulthood. 

What to do?

Emotional dysregulation does not tend to resolve on its own with time. Supersensers may start to use maladaptive coping mechanisms to reduce their high levels of emotional arousal, such verbal and physical aggression and self-harm. To decrease chances of emotional sensitivity transitioning into emotional dysregulation, supersensers need to learn adaptive coping skills and effective problem-solving techniques and their parents need to learn how to become Superparents to create a validating and change-ready environment.

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