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How to be less emotionally reactive

girl being emotionally reactive

We’ve all had the experience of being triggered by something that creates a sudden and intense emotional response within us. It might be that something happens that evokes feelings of anger or defensiveness, or that you feel very hurt by someone’s words or actions. An emotional response is just that – an emotion. It’s a feeling that’s evoked within you.

But unless you learn to effectively manage those feelings, they can easily turn into an action, or rather a reaction. That’s when you act in the heat of the moment and do or say something which you might later regret.  

If you find your buttons are easily pushed and you’re frequently experiencing emotional outbursts, flying off the handle at small things, lashing out at others or even sulking and withdrawing over the smallest things, it can be helpful to learn some strategies to manage those big feelings.

1.     Start with mindfulness

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

This isn’t about sitting down and meditating on a cushion – it’s about pressing the pause button between the stimulus and your response. Being mindful means being fully aware of what’s happening as it’s happening, and when you are able to slow yourself down enough to recognise you’ve had your buttons pushed, it gives you an opportunity to take a breath before reacting. This brief pause is a crucial starting point for learning to choose a different response.

2.     Identify what you’re feeling

There’s a popular and proven strategy for handling big emotions called “Name it to Tame it”.

By putting words to what you are feeling, you bring a part of your brain online that can help you to regulate those feelings.

In fact, labelling your emotions is proven to be as effective as many other strategies for emotional regulation. The added benefit of naming what you are feeling is that you start to develop a healthy emotional vocabulary. Many of us are quite limited in the words we have available to us to describe our emotions and learning to clearly identify and distinguish between various emotions helps you to make sense of them and therefore to manage them.

3.     Focus on what matters most

Usually when you react emotionally, you are being hijacked by a very primitive, lower part of our brain that instinctively wants to keep you safe from threat or harm. That part of your brain is not very rational and the things it’s most sensitive about are often past experiences that have nothing to do with what’s happening now.

Right now, in the present moment, what matters most is behaving in a way that is aligned with the kind of person you want to be, and upholding important values such as kindness, fairness, or compassion. When we are caught up in an emotional storm, we are not being our best selves. After pressing pause on your emotional reaction and clearly identifying what you’re feeling, the next step is to remind yourself of what is most important to you. This is your decision point to either give in to your emotional reaction or choose a different response.

4.      Count to 10

When faced with the decision to react or to choose a different option, while you are still flooded with intense emotions, you might just be inclined to go with the option of reacting. Sometimes the temptation to discharge those emotions is pretty powerful. There’s a reason they say you should count to ten when you’re angry and that’s because taking that brief break gives you a little more space to calm down the intensity of your emotions. The act of counting also draws on a more logical and linear process in your brain to help counter the irrational, emotive response.

5.     Respond, don’t react

Being less emotionally reactive isn’t about being passive or a pushover if someone has done something to offend or upset you. It is about choosing to respond rationally in a way that aligns with your values. Explaining to someone as calmly as possible that they’ve done something to hurt you gives you a much greater chance of being heard and understood than if you fly off the handle or use aggressive or blaming language. It might feel satisfying in the short term to vent all of your frustrations but in the long term what we are usually more interested in achieving is more honesty, respect and understanding. Take the high road for your own sake and the sake of all your relationships.

Learning to observe your thoughts and feelings (even the really big ones) without having your mood hijacked and your relationships threatened by them is what I teach in my Mindfulness for Busy People online course. To hear when the doors are opening again, register your details here.

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7 Comments

  1. Rick Kolan on May 18, 2020 at 5:11 am

    Thank you for this helpful advice. On the one hand it seems obvious, but the actual strategies you mention useful.

  2. Fouad Haghseresht on May 18, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you for the helpful tips. I would like to suggest another: Seek assistance if you are having problems with implementing these simple but useful strategies or you are struggling with controlling emotion responses in everyday life. Remember: To see help is a sign of strength and not weakness.

    Takes Care Psychology
    Web: http://www.takecare.com.au
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TakesCarePsychology/

  3. Mary McIlduff on August 3, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    Wonderful!! Thank you so much
    Mary x

  4. Kim on September 12, 2020 at 5:24 am

    Anger is often the result of having to explain something to someone who it seems is too thick to understand.

    • Kaz on October 30, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      I think that may be called a trigger. It happens to be one of my triggers, as well. For myself, it is often compounded by the ‘thick’ acting as if they know better, than I. Being an Engineer I deal with this from Sales often. Of course, it’s while I am under a tremendously stressful workload with unreasonable deadlines and very limited site specific data. As an Engineer I must be Objective and conform to the laws of nature and applicable code regulations. Others, such as sales have a different set of ‘rules’ guiding their behavior and motives. Their goals are to make money and pleasantly make connections with those who will hand them projects. Very limited knowledge of what is being sold is required, it seems. I am no expert on Psychologies but I think the 1st step is to recognize the differences in the ‘thick’ and ourselves. I may try to explain, write extensive emails with all the information…it all makes perfect sense to me and probably another Engineer on my level but often, not to Sales. They may read a line but not the paragraph or 2. They are stuck in their head with “but my commission” ” other Engineers don’t go to this depth. what the hell is he talking about, I know my job”. I’m a work in progress trying to effectively deal with this. One technique I may try is the “naming” mentioned above. Pause, realize you are dealing with a ‘Thick’ and the anger you feel is ‘Lava’ you are about to pour that Lava on him/her, while that sounds gratifying lol, most of that Lava will fall on you and his reactions will not help you, to get through it. I’ll let you know how it works out. It seems like too much extra time but in the long and short run, I think it will be more effective than pour Lava on one’s self and may change your mood as you chuckle internally and find a way to reach the Thick. Good luck. Anger/Lava makes it worse. Now, with those who are supposed to be Peers, it is a bit different but a similar principle may apply. It may just be, they need to see it from their view. Goal alignment helps but often the personal goals are different. I’m a work in progress as my objectivity is offensive to the Subjective… but I am a serious Engineer and many are not Engineers or serious about the full process of A-Z of what we all may be involved with…together.

  5. Anonymous on February 26, 2021 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for your helpful advice. Most articles I found d on this speak to reactive people as if we are terrible monsters. When you are looking for articles on hoe to change something you already hate about yourself, and the articles you find just make you feel worse, it’s hard to feel like you can change. Thank you for having a kind approach

  6. Marfa on August 9, 2021 at 9:55 pm

    Came across the keyword search on how not to be a reactive person and got there. Thank you for writing this one. Sometimes it isn’t about the reactive per se, but the feeling of guilt and anxiety afterward. Like, I have to process the emotion twice and it’s kinda tiring 😀 I still learning how to respond and elaborate.

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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