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How to be less emotional 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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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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