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A teenager is realizing that emotional hyperarousal may be causing his big feelings in therapy.

Emotional Hyperarousal May Be Causing Your Big Feelings

5 min.

Emotional hyperarousal can stem from factors like childhood experiences and cause fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and more.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

February 26, 2024


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Table of Contents

Everyone feels things differently. For some people, showing emotion is rare, or it might take quite a lot to elicit any response from them. Others show their emotions frequently (the phrase, wear their heart on their sleeve comes to mind) and might experience sensations more deeply. An even more heightened version of this is emotional hyperarousal. 

“When someone experiences emotional hyperarousal, they have intense emotional reactions to stimuli that might not typically provoke such strong feelings in others,” says Charlie Health Primary Therapist Meghan Jensen, LPC. Emotional hyperarousal can be a form of emotional dysregulation, but there’s nothing “wrong” with you if you experience it. Below, we’ll delve into the symptoms of emotional hyperarousal, how it intersects with mental health conditions, and tips to better understand your feelings.

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What causes emotional hyperarousal? 

Emotional hyperarousal sensations and triggers can vary from person to person. The throughline between people with emotional arousal is that their internal thoughts and external reactions will generally be more passionate, whether about a conflict or a frustrating noise. 

According to Charlie Health Primary Therapist Kathleen Douglass, MA, LCPC, emotional hyperarousal isn’t a mood disorder, but it can stem from mental and behavioral health disorders. “For someone with emotional hyperarousal, this is simply their makeup and how they experience everyday emotion,” she says. “It is also hard for people to calm down once intense emotions are experienced because these people find it hard to self-regulate their emotions.”

Jensen adds that the reasons someone might experience emotional hyperarousal stem from genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors ranging from substance use to medical conditions. She says that other common causes of emotional hyperarousal include anxiety disorders, chronic stress, trauma, personality traits, and childhood experiences.

Signs of emotional hyperarousal 

There are a range of ways emotional hyperarousal can manifest. As its name suggests, it can appear as intense emotion, along with physiological expressions and extreme, constant assessment of possible threats. Not everyone will show all emotional arousal symptoms, and they might appear differently in each person. According to Jensen, common symptoms of emotional hyperarousal include:

  • Fear or anxiety
  • Irritability, agitation, or hypervigilance
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia
  • Emotional numbness or avoidant behavior
  • Physical symptoms like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension

How emotional hyperarousal intersects with mental and behavioral health disorders 

As mentioned above, emotional hyperarousal can be tied closely to certain mental and behavioral health disorders. People living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a disorder on the autism spectrum might experience emotional hyperarousal as part of their condition, says Douglass. For example, a PTSD symptom, like avoidant behavior, is also an emotional hyperarousal symptom. Then there’s trouble concentrating, also an ADHD symptom. 

Individuals with neurodivergence can experience emotional hyperarousal due to “being triggered by a certain situation, emotionally charged interactions or memories, or even sensory stimuli for those with neurodivergence,” says Douglass. “For instance, bathing can be a challenge for people with autism because the water hitting the skin can flood the nervous system with sensory overload, which causes a severe emotional reaction in people.” Eventually, even the sound of the shower could be a trigger as it brings to mind a challenging experience. This form of emotional dysregulation can require coping techniques to build a greater tolerance of the triggering situations.  

How to manage emotional hyperarousal 

There are a range of coping strategies available that can assist in emotion regulation. Here are some of the expert-approved options to explore. 

Try mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness encompasses a variety of techniques that can enhance overall mental health and specifically support emotion regulation. Jensen specifically recommends managing moments of emotional hyperarousal with deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, emotional awareness and acceptance, cognitive restructuring, and self-soothing activities. One option might be more enjoyable or beneficial than another. Mindfulness is all about tuning into yourself, and part of that is finding which techniques work best for you. 

Lean on your support system

Experiencing emotional hyperarousal can make you feel like you’re “too much” and more inclined to keep the extent of your feelings to yourself. But, this can reinforce feelings of shame and prevent you from getting support that may help you. Letting your loved ones know about your emotional hyperarousal can also make it easier for you and those around you when you have larger-scale emotional reactions. 

Create a safe space 

Emotional hyperarousal is often situational rather than appearing out of nowhere. As a result, moving yourself or a loved one out of an emotionally arousing situation can be highly helpful. Douglass recommends creating a calm space devoid of triggers where you can de-escalate. This place can be somewhere to go when signs of emotional hyperarousal appear. 

Attend therapy

A range of therapeutic techniques can support you in managing emotional hyperarousal. Both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be beneficial in noticing emotional arousal triggers and creating tools for calming yourself down, says Douglass. 

Sensory integration therapy, in particular, can benefit people living with autism, explains Douglass. It exposes individuals to dysregulating stimuli in a controlled environment and can reduce the impact of triggers. 

A man attends therapy to help manage emotional hyperarousal.

How Charlie Health can help

If you or a loved one are struggling with emotional hyperarousal, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with complex mental health conditions, including emotional hyperarousal. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your emotions is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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