Is there a connection between emotional self-regulation and spiritual connection? Yes. The better you can regulate your nervous system, the more easily you can hear your spiritual intuition.
If you’ve read Elaine Aron’s books about highly sensitive people (HSPs), you know that HSPs are what researchers call differentially susceptible to our environment. Specifically, we experience more long-term negative effects than non-HSPs from adverse childhood experiences.
Fortunately, we are also subject to the positive aspects of differential susceptibility. Dr. Michael Pluess, a research psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, is a leading researcher for a new theory known as vantage sensitivity. This theory suggests that—
Sensitive people are more strongly affected by both negative and positive experiences. However, traditional thinking in Psychology mainly considered how people differ in response to adverse experiences. Vantage Sensitivity is a recent theory that has been developed to describe how people also differ in response to positive and supportive experiences [italics mine.]
In short, we’ve known for years that HSPs are vulnerable to bad experiences. Now we’re learning HSPs are also highly receptive to positive and supportive experiences—including positive interventions designed to prevent or heal anxiety and depression. This is great news.
Empowering yourself to improve your inner environment
When you think of interventions for anxiety and depression, what comes to your mind first? Probably psychotherapy. If you’ve experienced the skillful listening and the unconditional positive regard a good therapist provides, you know how powerful this support can be. Therapy may prove to be a non-negotiable element of your healing path, particularly if you’ve experienced trauma.
Good therapy—or any effective 1:1 inner work, like facilitated Focusing or Inner Bonding—accomplishes two tasks. It helps you regulate your nervous system, then helps you create a better inner relationship with yourself. To put it another way, the work calms you down enough to take steps to make your inner environment less negative and more positive.
Whether you have therapeutic support or not, though, what can you do on your own to support emotional regulation and spiritual connection? A lot, as it turns out. In fact, daily, self-directed inner work as an essential form of emotional and spiritual hygiene for HSPs.
After all, your body and mind comprise the environment in which you live 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Accordingly, any improvement you make your inner environment can have a significant effect on your well-being. That’s why I strongly recommend you create a daily practice using some version of these six steps:
1—Regulate your nervous system
When you are upset or stressed, your nervous system is said to be dysregulated. Fortunately, you have a powerful tool always on hand to restore nervous system balance: your breath. Whether you are feeling anxious and sped up, or dull and sleepy, you can use your breath to restore an ideal balance of calm and alertness.
Breath-Body-Mind practices are highly effective tools for this self-regulation. If you wake up feeling anxious or ungrounded, for example, this simple breath-and-movement exercise can calm you with surprising rapidity. And if you find it difficult to shake off your morning sleepiness, this simple exercise will stimulate you into pleasant alertness.
You can follow up either of these practices with Coherent Breathing, another deceptively simple breath practice which both regulates your nervous system and provides a host of other health benefits.
2—Open to your spiritual connection
How do you best connect to your spiritual intuition? Perhaps you hear your inner knowing best when you are meditating. That’s one way I like to connect. I also find I hear my inner knowing well when I walk and talk to myself.
Whatever conditions you prefer, connecting in an intentional way to your spiritual intuition is the centerpiece of this six-step daily practice. Over time, you can establish a positive infinite loop: the more you connect to and act on your spiritual intuition, the better you feel.
Connecting can be as simple as asking, “What wisdom is here for me now?” You will find it easier to hear the answers when you’ve done the kind of self-regulating work I described above in Step One.
3—Connect to gratitude
There are many ways of expressing gratitude. Just choose one you like. I love identifying my favorite thing that happened today. I also enjoy looking over my list of inspired actions from the previous day and appreciate my spiritual intuition for recommending them and myself for completing them.
One caution about gratitude: don’t force it. Given the popularity of manifestation psychology, with its emphasis on maintaining an “attitude of gratitude,” you may have an inner part that fearfully monitors your mind state, saying things like, “I’m not feeling grateful! My vibration is dropping!”
If you catch yourself thinking this way, put your arm around this scared part of you that believes it has to manage your life. Once you’ve acknowledged this scared one, you can keep it company. From this “bigger you” of Loving Adult Presence, you will find it easier to connect to a sense of gratitude.
4—Identify your inspired actions for the day
You can directly invoke your spiritual intuition by asking, “What are my inspired actions for today?” If you are skeptical, try it. This deep sense of knowing, if you allow it to permeate your decisions and actions, is arguably your most important sensitive resource.
Limit your actions to five at the most, and be on the lookout for “shoulds.” If a “should” turns out to be something you really need to do, but you still don’t feel like doing it, you can ask your spiritual intuition to help you find the willingness.
5—Imagine what you want
Sometimes, in spite of your self-regulation and spiritual connection practices, you may still feel anxious, daunted, or overwhelmed as you contemplate your day. In this case, visualizing your desired outcome can powerfully shift your inner focus. I use a made-up game called “Queen for a Day.”
To play “Queen for a Day,” imagine you are Queen (or King.) You have every royal resource: a huge treasury, wise men, magicians, countless willing subjects. You even have access to a time machine. Then imagine what you’d order up if you were queen.
This is a silly, fun, and amazingly powerful exercise. In a matter of moments, it can transform your outlook from hopelessness to wonder and delight. In this new environment of possibility, you can imagine what you want, without the usual constraints of “that could never happen.”
6—Decide how you’d like to feel today
Hard as we may try, we can’t prevent feelings from arising. And once they arise, we can’t will them away: we can only decide how to respond to them. However, you can influence your feelings, by deciding in advance how you’d ideally like to feel today. In doing so, you leverage the psychological phenomenon known as priming: that is, you set yourself up to notice and appreciate your wanted feeling if and when it does arise.
Today, for example, I’ll be teaching a class on a complex and subtle topic, working with several clients, and finishing a draft of this article. I’d love to feel spacious, open, and clear. Wishing for this feeling, and noticing it when it happens, will help me replace my typical pattern of focusing on how busy and intense my day is going to be.
How long should this daily process take?
How long should you spend each morning on these six steps? That depends on your needs and preferences. I take an hour and a half, longer on some days. I have the time; I need the self-regulation and spiritual connection the practices bring; and I enjoy them. Choose a length that is sustainable for you.
If your time is short, consider the morning routine of Tony Robbins, the well-known author and entrepreneur. He manages to pack in kapalbhati pranayama, heart breathing, visualization, gratitude, “sharing” (sending out positive energy to others), and a goal-setting process—all in a mere 11 minutes. (Caution: kapalbhati is highly activating and has significant contraindications for some people. Please don’t try it unless you know it is safe for you.)
For me, Tony Robbins’ routine would feel like being shot out of a cannon. But it might be perfect for you. Whatever you do, just be sure to include all the elements: self-regulation, spiritual connection, gratitude, goal setting, visualizing, and setting the emotional tone for the day.
By starting your day in this intentional way, you can transform the quality of your day. If you pair this morning process with a complementary evening self-care routine, you can bring a sense of calm and safety into your sleep as well, creating a positive spiral of self-regulation and spiritual connection.