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How To Stop Emotionally Reacting (And Cultivate Calm)

Humans are emotional beings. Sometimes, we react to things from an emotional place without thinking about it first. Responding impulsively like that can result in behavior that is out of character for us, which can have lasting, negative impacts on our interpersonal relationships.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of emotional reactivity and how best to manage our emotional responses in the heat of the moment. 

What is Emotional Reactivity?

When we react impulsively to something, or we experience big emotions as a response to a situation, that’s called emotional reactivity.

When we react in the heat of the moment, we don’t take into account that feelings aren’t facts. That means that our reactions aren’t always appropriate for the reality of our situation and can, in fact, be an overreaction.

Here are some common signs of emotional reactivity:

  • You’re always blurting out whatever’s on your mind
  • You say hurtful things when you’re angry or embarrassed
  • Your mood changes quickly from one moment to the next
  • Your responses in the moment are sometimes too intense for what’s actually happening
  • You feel negative emotions at the slightest inconvenience and it tends to spoil your whole day
  • You find yourself saying things you regret later on
  • Your responses are sometimes out of character for who you are
A man has an emotional reaction and appears to be screaming with his hands on either side of his face
how to stop emotionally reacting

Why Do We Become Emotionally Reactive?

When we are stressed or dealing with big emotions, our ability to respond to situations logically is diminished. We tend to react emotionally when we’re overwhelmed or when we’re in a situation where our emotional resources are low. 

Generally, when we’re already struggling emotionally, we don’t have the capacity to consider our responses for appropriateness before just reacting. 

Say you’re having problems at work, or there is tension in your relationship at home. You’re already in fight or flight mode, so when someone accidentally bumps into you at the store, your emotions bubble over, and you find yourself screaming at them. 

This impulsive behavior is generally a fight-or-flight response.

When our emotional reserves are running low, we aren’t left with much to respond to any additional stress.

So when something happens that requires us to react, we tend to do so instinctively and from a place of frustration, fear, anxiety, or stress

Impact on Life:

Reacting emotionally is mostly a negative experience. It makes you act in an uncharacteristic way that isn’t appropriate to the situation, affecting your social interactions.

For example, snapping at the server at your local restaurant, when she’s simply trying to clarify your order. 

These negative responses beget further negativity. That server is now feeling rather awful about themselves, and you feel ashamed. 

In relationships, this can leave lasting damage.

Think about a couple who are both dealing with work stress. A small misunderstanding leads to a full-blown argument that’s suddenly so severe that one of them lands up sleeping on the couch.

Not only does this bypass effective conflict resolution and harm your interpersonal relationships, but it also gradually affects your general and emotional health and psychological well-being

The negative emotions eat into your sense of self-worth, make you question yourself, feel guilty, or become resentful. You’re more likely to feel depressed and anxious if you’re constantly reacting emotionally.

How To Work On Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation refers to your ability to control your emotional state. Instead of just responding to your feelings, the idea is to manage what you feel.  

Being able to exercise self-control means we can process what we feel and respond in an appropriate way that doesn’t cause harm or create a situation we regret later on. 

It’s worth noting that not managing emotions well is generally a challenge found in mental health conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

We’ll explore some techniques below, but this video is also quite helpful:

Techniques for Emotional Regulation:

Learning emotional balance and regulation doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are some coping strategies for regulating emotions:

  • Learn self-awareness by exploring what you’re feeling before responding to it. Identify what exactly you’re feeling.
  • Self-reflect and assess whether these emotions are based on fact: Reframe your thoughts to be more in line with the facts of the situation, not your feelings. What is true about this situation versus how it makes you feel? 
  • Evaluate your response: Is there is another, more appropriate way of thinking about your situation? Taking time to really sit with this question can help you process the situation more objectively. It may also prompt behavioral change that leads to a to a more appropriate response
  • Use mindfulness and relaxation techniques: To gain control over big emotions in the moment, utilize breathing and grounding techniques to help to calm intense feelings. Let’s dive into this one further.

Using Mindfulness and Present Moment Awareness

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of yourself in the moment, where you are, what you are doing, and what you are feeling; it’s also called present moment awareness. Being mindful allows you to analyze your emotions and react appropriately rather than being overwhelmed. 

Not only is it a foundational part of being able to regulate your emotions, but it has lots of benefits, like reducing stress responses, improving memory, fostering healthier relationships, and improving communication. 

Some of the best mindfulness practices to achieve this are:

  • Mindful meditation and spending time with yourself in the moment
  • Journaling and becoming comfortable with your thoughts and feelings
  • Stress reduction activities like grounding or breathing techniques

Identifying and Managing Your Triggers to Calm Emotional Reactions

To deal with emotional reactivity, you need to be able to identify your emotional triggers. 

  • Take note of how your body reacts in certain situations.
  • Stop and consider what’s caused you to feel this way.
  • Trace the emotion back to other situations where you felt this way. 
  • Ask yourself why you feel this way.

This is an excellent exercise to work out in a journal or even with a trained therapist. Some people even find shadow work to be a helpful tool for addressing emotional reactivity. I’ve got free starter prompts and guides for shadow work beginners if that’s something you want to explore.

A man uses mindfulness to calm himself
mindfulness for emotional reactivity

How to Handle Triggers:

Once you understand your triggers, here’s how you can manage them: 

  • Understand that it’s okay to feel what you feel, but push yourself to actively choose a more appropriate response to the knee-jerk reaction in the moment
  • Take time and space before you respond to the situation. Breathe, count to ten, and process first before reacting.
  • Communicate openly about why you feel triggered and how you’d like to change it.

The Role of Self-Awareness

To manage your triggers effectively, you’ll need to develop personal insight into your thoughts, emotions, and actions. 

This is called self-awareness. And it can be harder than it sounds, but it is a skill anyone can develop.

This process of self-reflection teaches you why you do what you do, why you think a certain way, and why you react the way you do.

Good mindfulness practices can help you become self-aware enough that you can recognize emotional reactivity signs. Through this conscious awareness, you can confront unhelpful thought patterns and the negative reactions you may have to them. 

The Power of Active Listening in Reducing Emotional Reactivity

Another powerful step toward reducing our emotional reactivity is to practice active listening. 

Whereas passive hearing refers to simply allowing someone to speak without paying attention, active listening implies hearing what’s being said as well as seeking to understand the intent behind it.

The benefit of practicing active listening is that emotional reactivity is less likely when you’re aware of the intent behind what’s being said.

Rather than just being confronted with words that you may be misunderstanding, you’re dealing with a bigger picture. 

Empathetic listening also means that you can accurately receive a message and the appropriate emotions behind it, allowing you to respond in a more fitting way.

Here are some tips for how to improve your communication skills through active listening:

  • Be fully present, give your undivided attention to the conversation.
  • Learn to read body language and other non-verbal cues.
  • Ask clarifying questions and confirm the emotions you’re seeing before you respond.
  • Listen to understand, and not just to respond.

When to Seek Professional Help

For some, it’s not always easy to come to grips with the big emotions we’re feeling, so if you still feel out of control and unable to manage your emotions, it may be time to get mental health support. Psychotherapy, like CBT, is very effective in dealing with emotional reactivity. 

Having a professional’s opinion from outside our deepest emotions can be very helpful, and they may be able to highlight some strategies unique to your situation. 

Holistic input from a therapist also opens up additional ways of coping; for example, there are supplements and medicines that can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression to allow you to explore triggers more effectively. 

Working with a therapist means you can find a treatment plan that works for you. 

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