One of the truths about us neurodivergents is we often have trouble with our emotions. Whether that is not being able to feel much or having difficulty sharing what we’re feeling with others OR the opposite: Living life feeling like you are on an emotional rollercoaster.
BIG feelings, DEEP and visceral.
Overwhelmed and engulfed and not knowing what to do about it.
Alexithymia is common amongst neurodivergents. This is described as:
“The inability to recognize or describe one's own emotions. Alexithymia has been linked to depression and suicidal behaviour” — Oxford Dictionary online
'Emotional dysregulation' is also common and is the term used to describe not being able to manage our big emotions. It can lead to us isolating ourselves or suppressing and denying the emotion OR the opposite — becoming explosive, aggressive and violent. This is when we lose control, it is not intentional. We just haven’t been taught about emotions — what different emotions are, connecting how it feels to the name so we can identify or label them, sit with them and allow them to pass. So instead we react instead of respond.
There are many ways to get to know how we are feeling. Examples include cognitively understanding and labelling emotions. This is something I had the joy of doing with junior school children during our yoga and mindfulness classes. It was wonderful to give them time to make connections between their body sensations and the name but it was even better that they got to realise that they shared these same feelings with their classmates. It’s not something they normally would get to do!
Alexithymia is sometimes said to be related to interoception challenges.
“Interoception is contemporarily defined as the sense of the internal state of the body. This can be both conscious and non-conscious.” — Wikipedia
I remember when I was a child and then again in my 30s thinking to myself “Why don’t I feel upset?” or “How come I don’t feel anything when I should feel upset or bothered?” in certain situations. Through yoga and other forms of deep pressure I eventually connected parts of my mind and the body — this continues to be an ongoing journey into the subtler parts that I am still unconscious of but it is a worthwhile journey. I remember in one of my yoga trainings being asked to see if I could feel the blood in my veins — now that is very challenging but great to try!
Other times I have indeed felt deeply upset by things that most people didn’t understand. I would feel a lot of pain if an animal or another person was hurt or in emotional pain. That was easier for me to connect to. I remember crying about things that I was sure other people would laugh about. But that was my experience. I cannot lie and I do not need to explain it. It just is.
So what are some ways to handle those big emotions without it rendering us helpless or out of control?
1. Befriend and get to know how it feels in the body and learn to identify the feelings using names and labels. Part of getting to know our feelings includes locating where you feel it in your body, and what sensation you feel in that part of your body. Is it burning? Is it boiling? Is it buzzing? Is it nauseating? Now give the feeling a name — this might be the actual word for the emotion such as anger or it could be defined as a colour, a person, as smell, a flavour.
The Calm app (pictured right) has a ‘wheel of emotions’ which is a useful resource to help you name/label your emotions. This is great to use with children too to give them the skills at an early age, that help them develop emotional awareness and eventually maturity.
Can you try to understand what it’s trying to tell you?
2. Can you just sit with the feeling until it passes instead of ignoring or pushing it down? Feelings may be big but they are not permanent, they come and they go. As Buddha says:
"Nothing is permanent. If you allow them to be acknowledged, you also give yourself the chance to let them go." — Buddha
To help you sit with them and pay attention without letting them overrun you, you can practise breathing exercises to help calm the nervous system, as well as use positive affirmations, sounds/music and journaling.
A big hug works wonders — this is deep pressure and connection at its simplest in my view! You can hug yourself too if there is no one around. That’s self-soothing.
Weighted blankets are another soothing option. The weight helps to provide a sense of deep pressure and wrapping it around you creates a cocooning sense of safety.
3. Be open and look out for other forms of creating a sense of safety to sit with, process and let go of emotions. A co-regulating person is wonderful if you can find them. They regulate themselves and allow you to feel regulated because of their presence. I have had many wonderful teachers, guides and coaches who have been a co-regulating presence. That has meant that I can now co-regulate, through extremely challenging times of crisis, for the important people in my life — my kids, my partner, family and my clients.
So, who is your compassionate co-regulator?
Or maybe for you it’s an animal or pet. Dogs, cats and horses are all known to be therapeutic!
If you haven’t found someone yet, stay open to the idea of finding or accepting the support of a co-regulator. It will do wonders — not just for you — like a flame that can light other candles, you get to share that gift with other people in your life.
May you be the light that the world needs.