I’m drowning in emotions. What’s wrong with me?

Alex is your average ‘15yo, kind and caring, good student, otherwise, no issues’ teenager who has great friends, a caring family. Her mom is worried about her daughter becoming more isolated and anxious over the last year.

Alex is now having mild anxiety attacks and doesn’t know what to.

When I spoke with Alex (name changed for privacy), she was struggling with managing what feels like a daily tidal wave of emotions that’s manifesting into anxiety. The kind where Alex feels safer being alone in her room trying to cope with it all than she does being out, even with friends. Being alone gives her the safety to let tears fall, shake with uncertainty, and not have any other stimulus take her to the breaking point when she can’t pretend she has it all together.

Here’s a few key points I got from our conversation with Alex.

  • She’s an introvert and needs alone time to recharge, as much as she enjoys her friends
  • She’s feeling overwhelmed by emotions (both her own and from people around her) most days and is afraid her emotions might spill over in public, including with her friends
  • She’s feeling very insecure and worried something is wrong with her because she can’t control ‘the overflow’ and it’s impacting her social life
  • She has no major relationship concerns (nothing toxic) except trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend over text and the misunderstandings that occur because of that

Here’s some context to add to that –

  • introverts are uncomfortable showing emotion or feeling out of control in public, even around close family and friends
  • introverts may feel very deeply but prefer to process those feelings alone or internally
  • emotional flooding is the experience of being overwhelmed when strong emotions take over, producing an influx of physiological sensations, an increase of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, often resulting in difficulty accessing our resources for calming down (AKA anxiety or panic attacks)
  • NONE of the above are a sign of weakness, being broken or less than

Alex needs healthy ways to process and name emotions

I asked Alex what she does in her room and how she manages her overwhelming emotions. At this point, she doesn’t have a way that explains her constant feeling of overwhelm, just keeping up with the new stimuli of every day. Alex also struggled to name her emotions, even though she could feel them in her head, chest, and stomach when they built up.

It’s time to write it out

I encouraged Alex to start a journal to help her process and release her emotions in the safety of her room. This journal is to be totally unedited, messy, grammatically incorrect – a stream of thought that doesn’t need to make sense to anyone. Your emotional brain is non-linear and random so go with it!

Journaling even for 10 minutes/day creates

  • a sense of calm
  • improves your mood by releasing thoughts stuck on repeat in your brain
  • helps gain perspective (overwhelming thoughts/feelings aren’t as powerful once you write them on paper for your eyes to see)
  • prioritize problems, fears, concerns
  • recognize triggers and learn ways to better manage them
  • an opportunity for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts
  • improves memory and cognitive ability

Alex might be a highly sensitive person (HSP)

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a term for those who are thought to have an increased or deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. HSP isn’t a disorder or a condition, but rather a personality trait that’s also known as sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). HSPs make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population and scientists now believe there is a gene behind this trait.

HSPs are generally introverts and may feel physical symptoms in relation to these emotions, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle tension. They may become overwhelmed with physical stimuli such as sound, light, and smells and the energy of the crowds easily overwhelms them.

Isn’t that the same as being an empath?

The term empath comes from empathy, which is the ability to understand the experiences and feelings of others outside of your own perspective. You actually sense and feel emotions as if they’re part of your own experience. In other words, someone else’s pain and happiness become your pain and happiness. Being an empath and an HSP are two different traits that can occur independently from each other.

Whether or not your teen is an HSP expresses emotions easily all over the place, supporting them to build an emotional vocabulary is critical for their mental health and self-advocacy when life feels overwhelming. I suggested Alex use the chart below (developed by Dr. Gloria Wilcox) while journaling to help her begin putting words to her feelings.

I recommend families keep this on their fridge or use it as a point of discussion over meals. Everyone gets to share without judgment or needing to defend themselves.

  1. one feeling they had that day
  2. what was happening around the feeling (the situation)
  3. did they have any physical symptoms and what (if anything)
  4. did they do with that feeling (action)

Building an emotional vocabulary when your teen’s brain is calm equips them for when their emotions rise up. This is NOT a tool to force on your teen when they’re freaking out!

If Alex’s situation sounds familiar for your teen, I’ve included two book resources below to help you understand, normalize, and manage emotions (click on the books to purchase). If you’re looking for more immediate and personalized answers, click here to book your session with me. I look forward to connecting with you! 

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