Do you feel like you overreact to situations more than you’d like to? Perhaps your moods can shift quickly, or perhaps you’ve said or done some things in the heat of the moment that you’ve later regretted. Essentially, if you feel like you have a lack of control over how you respond to situations that upset you, you may be struggling with emotional reactivity or emotional dysregulation. There are many potential causes of reactivity, including certain physical conditions, trauma, or unmet needs over time. If you feel that your reactions are extreme and are having a major impact on your life, consider seeking professional guidance as you may have an underlying condition. Regardless of the cause, reactivity is common! As human beings, there’s no possible way that we can handle every situation with perfect wording and unwavering grace… and that’s ok! Making positive changes in the way that you respond is not a one and done fix, so be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes as you embark on the journey of curating responses that are healthier to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your loved ones. Here are three steps that can help you to respond more effectively to triggering situations:
- Be Aware: Understand your body’s signals for when your emotions are heightened. Does your heart beat faster? Does your stomach tighten? Do you become irritable? Do your thoughts become darker than usual? The key is being able to catch yourself before your emotions become overwhelming.
It can also be helpful to label the emotion you’re feeling in that moment. When you can say, “I feel annoyed” or “I feel disappointed,” you give yourself more clarity of the situation, which can ideally provide an immediate alleviation of distress. It can help to use a feelings wheel to get as specific as possible, rather than being limited to the most common emotion words (happy, sad, angry, etc.).
- Regulate Your Nervous System:When emotions are heightened, the prefrontal cortex (aka the thinking part of the brain) becomes less active. When you take time to self-soothe,you’re much more likely to respond, rather than react, to the situation at hand. Taking some deep, slow belly breathsgives your psyche permission to move out of survival mode, allowing you to think as clearly as possible. Try practicing this “emergency breathing” now so that you won’t have to think about how to do so in the moment of experiencing intense emotion.
It’s also important to note that taking care of your physical needs (nutrition, hydration, exercise, and sleep) makes a huge difference in your body’s ability to stay regulated. When your physical health becomes a priority, the way you feel and the way you react to situations becomes much calmer and more controlled.
- Reframe Your Thoughts:Once you’ve been able to catch yourself prior to reacting to a situation, it’s time to take a second look at your thought patterns. The meaning that we attach to a situation makes all the difference in how we react. Often, emotional reactivity lives in black and white thinking, which refers to thinking in extreme, all-or-nothing thinking. Sometimes this way of thinking can feel good, because it can justify our feelings and alleviate our own level of responsibility. For example, if I say, “My partner never helps me with household chores”, this makes me feel like I’m the one who’s in the right and it also takes away my responsibility of voicing my own needs, because ifthey never help with the dishes, then what’s the point of trying to do anything about it? This is a form of short-term comfort, but it creates more distress in the long-term.
Instead, try finding the grey area within situations. For this example, maybe that partner does help with the dishes sometimes, or maybe they contribute to the household in other ways that are not being acknowledged. When we’re honest with ourselves and we look for exceptions to our ways of thinking, even when it’s annoying to do so, we allow ourselves the opportunity to look at the situation with more clarity and compassion.
Again, it’s natural to have moments of emotional reactivity. When we’re triggered, there’s often something deeper being activated within us, so it’s valid to experience uncomfortable sensations in response! Though we may not be able to control others or external circumstances, we can control our perspectives. Through deepening our levels of self-awareness, taking care of ourselves, and looking at our thoughts from objective points of view, we can begin to feel more empowered by our responses to situations.