Sometimes we feel extra emotional or hypersensitive without any explanation. It may be a sudden trend you're noticing, or it may be what feels like an intrinsic part of your personality. Here's what you need to know about heightened emotions and possible reasons you're so emotional right now or in general.
Why you have all these emotions.
Humans have emotions for a reason. Emotions are important, normal signals that help us identify internal or external needs.
"They motivate us to act," says Emma Carpenter, M.A., a marriage and family therapist at A Better Life Therapy. "In the days of hunters and gatherers, emotions were used as a way to protect ourselves from predators and the elements." Even though we're far from those hunter-gatherer days, emotions are still helpful because they tell us what's good for us and what's bad for us.
Being emotional can be healthy.
When we think about emotions as signals, it becomes clear that there's no such thing as a "good" or "bad" emotion. All emotions are there to motivate us, give us information, and help us connect to one another and to ourselves, Carpenter says. Some emotions may be indicating pain and thus be harder to deal with, but having the emotion is what tells you that something needs to shift or change.
What can push emotions into unhealthy territory is a lack of understanding about how to cope with them. It's important to acknowledge and process your emotions so you can move past them rather than getting stuck, says psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. For example, acting impulsively in response to an emotion can be unhealthy, whereas taking time to think about your emotions before responding is often more productive and can help you move past them more quickly in the long term.
In other words, having a lot of emotions is healthy and normal. Lacking healthy ways to cope with your emotions is what can get you into trouble.
Why you might be feeling emotional:
1. Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep can make it tough to identify your emotions or make your way through them in a balanced way. Research has shown sleep deprivation can affect emotional processing. In addition to irritability and mood disturbances, insomnia has been linked with rumination, aka repetitive thought processes and excessive worrying.
To improve your sleep hygiene and create a calmer place to land, avoid drinking caffeine late in the day, begin a bedtime routine, and turn off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
2. Poor diet
Nutritional psychiatry is booming for a reason: Research tells us food can impact your mental health and your body’s ability to process and balance our neurochemicals. That means what you eat affects how you feel, which can affect your overall well-being. For example, a high-quality mediterranean diet has been associated with emotional wellness, especially for women. In case it gives you any clues: that’s a diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and legumes.
If you're feeling emotionally out of control, consider what your diet has looked like for the past week. What can you change?
3. Lack of exercise
Regular exercise has been proven to help with emotional regulation by providing you with much-needed endorphins and a clearer mind. That exercise doesn't have to be vigorous, either—but moving your body will help you sleep better and feel better, physically and emotionally.
5. Big changes and life turbulence
Some life experiences may make a person more likely to be emotional in general, says Hendel. Big life transitions, relationship troubles, and world crises like a pandemic can cause heightened anxiety, which can make you feel emotional as a result. Some studies have shown that using mindfulness as a mechanism for responding to stress can help you regulate your emotions more effectively.
6. Grief and trauma
When a tragic event happens in your life, your emotional well-being can suffer. Research suggests people have heightened emotional reactions after trauma, including sexual assault, physical assault, car accidents, and significant illness and injury. Emotions like fear, shame, guilt, anger, and sadness tend to be particularly high following trauma for obvious reasons. Early life stress, such as child abuse and stress, has also been linked with psychiatric disorders including depression and bipolar.
That said, trauma is complex: Your emotions may feel out of control, or you may feel like you don't have emotions at all. Both of these responses are normal. Either way, it's important to seek help from a qualified therapist so you can work through the challenging situation and clue into what your emotions might be telling you.
Hendel says it's important to remember that people who've experienced a lack of safety and security in their lives are also likely to have more emotional triggers.
7. Hormonal imbalances
Anyone who's been through PMS or been pregnant knows that hormones can cause your emotions to spike unpredictably at certain times in life. It's important to remember the impermanence of your emotions during these times and to develop healthy mechanisms for labeling the emotional tidal waves as they rise and fall.
8. Depression and other mental health conditions
Conditions like depression and anxiety are linked with difficulty regulating emotions. Anxious individuals often find themselves in a flurry of emotions tied to fears about the past and the future, while depressed individuals may experience emotional muting. Knowing your mental health history can give you a touchpoint for checking in when your emotions feel out of control. Are these signals telling you the truth about perceived warning signs, or are they igniting fears that may not be rooted in reality?
Other conditions like ADHD and personality disorders can also affect mood and emotional processing. If you're concerned, you might benefit from speaking with a trained mental health professional.
Studies have also shown that emotional functioning is heritable, meaning that you may get your inclination toward emotiveness partially from your parents or ancestors. Some research suggests particularly emotional people may have slightly different brain chemistry, including increased blood flow in the regions that process emotions and empathy.
10. You're out of touch with your emotions
Some people have a tendency to suppress their emotions or believe that avoiding emotional reactions is "being strong." Thus, when their emotions finally get too powerful to ignore, they feel like they're out of control or being "overly emotional"—when in reality, they've just been out of touch with their emotions for so long that they're not used to experiencing them.
In other words, you may feel like you're being very emotional right now because you think emotions are not OK, when in reality your feelings right now are totally normal and even healthy.
Many cultures still treat emotions as untouchable entities not acceptable for public conversation, and there is little education about how to process difficult emotions. People raised as boys and men, especially, are discouraged from engaging with their emotions. If you tend to judge others and/or yourself for being emotional, it's worth interrogating your meta-emotions—i.e., how you feel about emotions in general.
11. You're a highly sensitive person (HSP)
Yes, emotional can simply be your natural disposition, Hendel says.
Some people are by nature more sensitive than others. These people are sometimes referred to as highly sensitive people (HSPs). As much as 20% of the population may be HSPs, according to some research. Carpenter says highly sensitive people might be more likely to feel more deeply—which may mean they're prone to heightened emotional experiences.
Healthy ways to process your emotions.
Sometimes it can feel like your emotions are getting the best of you. Carpenter uses depression as an example: When you're depressed, you may feel emotionally like you're missing something in your life. Along with this, you may think that you are unlovable, unwanted, or maybe even undeserving—and while the emotional experience is valid, the thoughts behind it aren't helpful.
"This is when emotions can feel difficult to work through," Carpenter says. "But with practice, we can feel less overwhelmed."
Processing your emotions in a healthy way is all about paying attention. Rather than burying them, learn to separate your emotions from their associated thoughts using this emotional coping method from psychologist Danielle Dowling, Psy.D.:
Accept your emotions.
Ignoring your emotions can lead to an explosion later on. Instead, try to identify your emotions by noticing where they live in your physical body. You might feel an emotion as a stomachache or jaw tension.
Name your emotions.
Joy, anger, sadness—all emotions are healthy and can help you, and the first step is simply to name it. It's also important to remember that there's a difference between saying, "I am angry," and "I feel angry." You are not your emotion.
Hendel also notes there are two categories of emotions to watch for: core emotions and inhibitory emotions. Core emotions tell us about our environments. "Core emotions are brilliant," she says. "Their innate programming tells us important information to help us thrive." They include sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, and disgust, she says. Inhibitory emotions, on the other hand, are emotions that often prevent you from experiencing those core emotions. These include shame, anxiety, and guilt.
Recognize the impermanence of your emotion.
You won't feel this way forever. Emotions are fleeting, like waves passing through your body.
Investigate the origin.
Take a moment to think about what has happened to cause that negative emotion. Ask yourself: Why do I feel this way?
Let go of control.
Tolerating negative emotions can be anxiety-provoking, but moving through hard stuff—even if it takes a while—can help you build personal awareness and coping skills. Emotions may be out of your control, but how you respond to them is within your control.
Meditate with a mantra.
Consider meditating with a phrase in your mind. This can help you control your anxiety, check in with yourself, and increase happiness. Dowling suggests using the phrase, "Breathe in peace, love, forgiveness. Breathe out anything that no longer serves me."
When to seek help.
Sometimes emotions can be tough to handle alone. If you feel deeply distressed or out of control, seek help from a qualified therapist. If your emotions feel like they are negatively affecting different areas of your life, this is also a sign that you should reach out to learn new tools and strategies for coping.
If your emotions are leading to suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
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Jenni Gritters is a health journalist and certified yoga teacher from Seattle, WA. She has a degree in psychology from Bucknell University and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. She received her yoga teaching certification with Sendatsu Evolution. Gritters covers the science of healthy living, focusing on the newest scientific research about living a satisfying life. She runs a weekly column for Medium’s health magazine Elemental called "The Health Diaries", and she previously worked as an editor at The New York Times' product review site Wirecutter where she edited longform health, fitness, travel, and outdoors content.