Healthy Tahoe: Making sense of strong emotions |

Healthy Tahoe: Making sense of strong emotions

About The author

Saul Zelan, MD, specializes in adult and child psychiatry. He is part of the team at Barton Psychiatry and provides counseling, assessments and other mental health services for adults and children. He will be giving a free public wellness lecture on “What is Mental Illness?” this Wednesday, May 10, at 6 p.m. at Lake Tahoe Community College. For more information about the lecture, go to

Emotions — what a puzzle! We all have them, yet none of us understand them very well. Why is that? Stated simply: Some people seem to have more emotions than others. But why? Why do some people seem to have a shorter fuse, or struggle to control themselves, or have a harder time letting things go? Why are teen years often so difficult? And beyond all that, why do we as a species experience so much rage, hatred, violence, bias, injustice and discrimination? Indeed, why can’t we all just get along?

Fortunately, science is making progress in understanding emotions. One way is through a basic model called bio-social theory. It involves ideas about how we are born (the bio part) and how we are raised (the social part).

Biological Background

Some people are simply born with more emotions than others. Like hair or eye color, emotional tendencies seem, to some extent, to be a heritable trait. Those with more emotions than others will tend to react faster, have stronger responses, have a harder time controlling their reactions, and need more time to return to their emotional baseline. We call this overall pattern “emotional vulnerability.” People with a higher emotional response may have a more acute or sensitive reaction to challenging and even everyday events.

Role of Life Events

We sometimes encounter experiences that increase our emotional vulnerability. This is the “social” part of the bio-social theory. Emotional vulnerability can elevate because of a variety of occurrences, such as invalidation (from the environment or from yourself), trauma, substances, poor sleep, illness, lack of coping skills or feeling overwhelmed.

Life looks very different to emotionally vulnerable people. There is no doubt that emotions at this level can be more painful for them compared to less emotional people.

The good news is the same science that helps us observe and describe emotions can also help us predict and influence them. So if you or someone you love seems to be struggling with emotional vulnerability, know there are solutions and help is available.

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