We all have moments when we lose our cool. It’s the end of a long, tiring day, and when your kids won’t cooperate with the bedtime routine, you find yourself yelling and slamming doors. Or maybe you’re keyed up watching your favorite sports team, and when they get a bad call by the ref, you throw your phone to the ground and shatter the screen.
This is what we call emotional reactivity. The emotions seem to come on quickly, feeling as big as a tidal wave and just as impossible to harness. We feel out of control of our own emotions and find ourselves doing or saying things we may later regret. We may even be aware that our reaction is disproportionate to the preceding event but still feel unable to change course.
Being emotionally reactive is exhausting, feels out of control, with lots of potential for negative consequences.
We all become more emotionally reactive when we are tired, in pain, or stressed. But some of us may feel stuck in a pattern of emotional reactivity. We feel emotionally sensitive and fragile much of the time, crises seem to be lurking everywhere. We might say things that hurt the people we love or create messes we must repeatedly clean up. Knowing yourself and your vulnerability to being emotionally reactive can help you give yourself the space to better manage these moments.
It can be helpful to understanding what’s happening in the body during these moments of emotional flooding. When we perceive a situation as overwhelming, our body activates the stress response. We release high levels of the stress hormone cortisol causing our nervous system to switch into the fight-flight-or-freeze mode. The emotional areas of our brain are highly activated while the thinking and processing part of our brain goes quiet. We are literally too emotionally reactive to rationally process information or make thoughtful decisions. This is when we may do or say things we later regret.
Many people are especially reactive to certain themes or situations that trigger them. Common themes include noticing injustices, feeling disrespected, or feeling one of your values is threatened. Your feeling in the moment might be completely understandable as frustrated, angry, hurt, or threatened. However, your degree of overwhelm and need to immediately act on this feeling is what can create problems. Emotional reactivity can harm relationships when you frequently turn small events into crises.
The alternative to being emotionally reactive is learning to be more emotionally responsive. When we are emotionally responsive, we notice the gradual buildup of feelings and find healthy ways to express our emotions before becoming overwhelmed.
The Differences Between Emotional Reactivity & Emotional Responsiveness
|Emotional Reactivity||Emotional Responsiveness|
|No aware of emotional buildup||Aware of emotional buildup|
|Feel suddenly flooded with feelings||Identify feelings before becoming overwhelmed|
|High distress related to emotions||Compassionate acceptance of emotions|
|Volatile response||Self-soothing practice|
|Regret and shame over how feelings were expressed||Effectively expressing feelings when emotionally steady|
|Exhaustion||Relief with energy to spare|
|Relationship conflicts||Relationship stability|
Learning to be emotionally responsive is a practice that takes time and intention. Below are steps you can take to increase your emotional awareness, self-soothing, and healthy expression.
Strategies to Increase Emotional Responsiveness
- Identify the themes that trigger you.
- Notice if you’re more sensitive in certain situations, certain times of day, or with certain people.
- Practice checking in with yourself to notice gradual changes in your body, heart, and mind so you can identify the gradual buildup of emotions before it feels overwhelming.
- Name and accept your emotions as they surface. Sometimes just saying to yourself, “I’m feeling sad today” can allow you to take care of yourself in healthy ways.
- Choose when, where, and to whom you can safely express your feelings effectively.
- Give yourself opportunities to get to the bottom of your feelings when you are in a safe time and space. This might mean crying until you’re out of tears or screaming into a pillow until the pain softens.
- During a calm moment, identify 2-3 self-soothing strategies that work for you such as deep breathing, singing, drinking water, going outside.
- When emotions begin to elevate above a 6/10 intensity level, take steps to remove yourself from the stressful situation and practice self-soothing.
With time and practice, my patients who experienced emotional reactivity describe great pride and calm as they learn to experience and express their feelings effectively. They often say they continue to experience as many daily hassles and stressors as they always have, but they’ve learned to respond differently. The world around us does not need to change for us to feel different about how we move through it.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation for an appointment with Dr. Smith, please email email@example.com or use the contact form.