How To Overcome Emotional Reactivity And Build Emotional Stability
All human beings experience a wide spectrum of emotions, and understanding how to manage and regulate these emotions is a key aspect of reactivity psychology. For the most part, we can handle them reasonably well. Said a different way, most people have adequate emotional regulation. For some, however, control may seem extremely challenging. That is, they may be more emotionally reactive. They might lash out at others or explode when something angers or upsets them.
As you can imagine, being emotionally reactive may make personal and intimate relationships challenging to maintain. To lead a better quality of life, we must learn to regulate our emotions and improve our relationship with them. With the right help, you can learn how to better control your emotions, avoid emotional outbursts, and improve your emotion regulation.
To help you get started on the path toward better emotional regulation, here is a guide on how to overcome emotional reactivity and build emotional stability. Seeking help from an online therapist is also a great resource for learning how to manage overwhelming emotions. If you are intrigued or curious to learn more about this topic, read on.
What Is Emotional Reactivity?
How can we define emotional reactivity? Emotional reactivity refers to a tendency toward a response that is negative and exceeds what is needed for the expression of your feelings. If you are emotionally reactive in situations that spark anger or other emotions that have a negative impact on you, you likely already know what this problem of being emotionally reactive looks like. However, some people may believe that they are acting reasonably or defending themselves appropriately against someone. They may believe they have a good level of emotion regulation. To truly see this behavior for what it is, we have to view maladaptive emotional reactions from the outside. You may benefit from observing your actions for what they actually are in a rational way.
For example, let’s imagine that you are in a relationship. Your partner is upset about something that you have done or said, and communicated this sentiment to you. In an instant, you are already fuming and feeling resentful. At this point, your negative emotional reactivity begins. You begin yelling at your partner and defending yourself with things that they may have said or done in the past. At this point, the fight is either going to continue until an apology is made or someone walks away. After all is said and done, you may feel guilty, ashamed of your behavior, or embarrassed of your emotionality.
The above is just an example of emotional reactivity that you may see in all areas of your life. Those who know how to regulate their emotions will likely be able to accept criticism (despite how challenging it may be), try to understand the other person’s point of view or perspective, and process the feelings that they may be feeling as a result. However, those who are emotionally reactive and without sufficient emotional regulation skills may immediately be triggered by things that upset them. This form of reaction will cause them to overreact, and the effects can cause more harm than good.
Continuing with this behavior can make it hard to form and maintain close relationships. The emotional reactivity combined with the broken relationships can then exacerbate the negative emotions that you may be currently experiencing.
Six Tips For Overcoming Emotional Reactivity And Controlling Your Emotions
The key to creating a change from emotional reactivity to emotion regulation begins with altering your current behavior so that you can act more appropriately in the future. But how can you get started working toward emotion regulation and better mental health? Here are some emotion regulation skills, strategies, and measures to help you avoid increased reactivity.
Walk Away From Situations That Challenge You Before You Have An Opportunity to React
If you know that you are prone to emotional reactions, walking away from a situation before it has a chance to spark a reaction is one method to use to avoid exploding. Although this may not be a realistic strategy for every situation, it gives you a chance to calm down before you can react. During this breakaway period, you can focus on your thoughts, take a moment to work through the feelings and return to the situation with a better response and improved emotion regulation. It may take some time to develop this skills, but once you have it down, you have a better way to regulate your emotions before they are expressed in a more harmful manner through emotional reactivity.
Find Relaxation Exercises That Can Help You Calm Down When You Feel Like Reacting
For example, if someone says something to you that leads you to feel angry or jealous, instead of giving in to emotional reactivity, choosing to engage in a deep breathing exercise to calm yourself down can be a useful tool for better emotion regulation. Deep breathing is not the only exercise available for avoiding emotional reactivity, but when learning emotion regulation strategies, it can be a great place to start. Whatever serves to make you feel more relaxed when you are feeling especially reactive, use it to your advantage in your challenges with emotional reactivity. With practice and employment of these methods, emotion regulation may come much more easily.
Cultivate A Greater Awareness Around Your Thoughts To Improve Emotion Regulation
When we are used to reacting with emotional reactivity, we don’t often take the time to understand how we go from listening to reacting. For example, if someone says something to you, the next step may be to respond in the best way you know how – with emotional reactivity. However, reacting to your arousal doesn’t have to be the response. Instead, you can practice cognitive reappraisal of the situation to determine the stimuli in your environment that catalyzed your response. Make a mental note that you can reach for emotion regulation. You can listen to your thoughts when you feel like you will react impulsively to something or notice the signs of emotional reactivity within you.
Ask yourself questions as you feel unpleasant emotions to help yourself understand the causes of your pain. Why does the emotion bother you? What are the consequences of reacting to the thing or the emotion that is bothering you? Is there a better way to respond besides emotional reactivity? After all, emotion regulation doesn’t mean getting rid of uncomfortable or upsetting emotions. It just means changing the way you respond to negative emotions. Performing an internal assessment to learn how your thoughts contribute to your action is the first step in creating change away from emotional reactivity and toward better emotional regulation. This cognitive reappraisal process may take time to master, but when you achieve it, it is well worth the effort.
One great way to start seeing the emotional reactivity in your thoughts is by journaling. After you react, write down the situation and the aspects of your reaction. Then, evaluate the situation, look for signs, and figure out how you may have responded with decreased emotion at the moment. Consider how you would react if you had better support for your emotion regulation. Would you react impulsively or make a different choice? What emotion regulation strategies would you use? How would you achieve your best emotional regulation? Thinking about these questions can help you gather more information and play a moderating role in helping you react less emotionally.
You may also want to engage in exercises like mindfulness meditation to improve your emotional regulation. This is one of the emotion regulation strategies that can help you learn how to let thoughts pass as they come and see thoughts objectively rather than reacting and getting caught up in emotional reactivity. The more you do understand your thoughts, the better suited you may be to adjust them once they start turning into a reaction. Then, you can be on your way to more effective emotion regulation.
Learn More About Your Triggers And How You Can Overcome Them
Certain things can trigger us and spark a reaction contrary to good emotion regulation. For example, let’s continue with the example of emotional reactivity from earlier in the article. Let’s imagine that your partner says something to you about your appearance. While your partner didn’t intend to offend you, you immediately react impulsively in response and become agitated. The problem here isn’t necessarily because of what they’ve said but how you’ve reacted to it. In this situation, the emotional reactivity trigger may be that you’re insecure about the nature of your appearance.
Now that you are more aware that this is an emotional reactivity issue for you, you can begin working on that problem so that it doesn’t elicit a reaction. Then, when someone says something, you can accept it and work through it rather than react, and you can gain emotion regulation. Understanding what triggers us into emotional reactivity and how to respond appropriately can yield better results for everyone.
An easy way to get started on learning your emotional reactivity triggers is to keep an emotion regulation diary where you write down points where you become too reactionary to the influence of others. Make a note of the incident, your thoughts, feelings, and actions in response. Did you practice emotional regulation? What stopped you from responding with enough emotion regulation? Take a mental note to remember that self-reported emotional reactivity could help you move more quickly in therapy and get more personalized advice from your therapist. Also, a counselor only helps you with your informed consent so that you are the center of the therapy process. You make decisions along the way about how to manage your challenges.
Maintaining this emotional regulation diary takes a few minutes a day and can help you identify a series of patterns. Also, if you choose to pursue therapy to help with this issue of emotional reactivity, presenting this diary to your therapist can give you both some insight into both the frequency and criteria behind your emotions. The note application on your cell phone can be a wonderful tool for making this happen, and you will have it with you whenever emotional reactivity happens as well as when you respond with excellent emotion regulation. Because you brought in notes for self-reported emotional reactivity, your therapist can know more about where to start helping you with your condition.
Avoid Making Assumptions About What Other People May Mean
Another excellent lesson to take away from the above example is to not make assumptions about other individuals. Remember, false assumptions about the terms of someone's statements can bring up emotion needlessly. Many of us are prone to misinterpreting the purpose behind what others have to say. That is often when you need emotion regulation most, but understanding what is really happening can also help boost your emotion regulation.
When we make assumptions, we can respond the wrong way, with emotional reactivity, which can make it harder for others to communicate with us. The key to effective communication is to learn why others say what they do. When someone says something that causes you to feel an emotion like feeling hurt or angry and leads you to emotional reactivity, take the time to figure out why they said it. Give yourself enough time for emotion regulation, especially if you have emotion dysregulation issues and are new to working on emotion regulation. Chances are that they are simply trying to remedy a problem or bring your awareness to something. However, when we become emotionally reactive, it can shut them down and make it harder to communicate without them feeling scared of your reaction in the future.
Practicing active listening can help you discover what the person really means before the emotion becomes too strong to manage. Listening has a moderating effect on your emotion, in other words. Active listening involves paying attention to the other person’s words but also their body language, expressions, and tone of voice. Active listening means going beyond what you hear. Ask questions for clarification and reflect back to them everything they said to be sure you understand correctly before getting frustrated. Then, show empathy for their position or situation before you react. Remember, with careful examination generally you can choose better responses.
Practice active listening, process what you hear and see in the other person’s nonverbal body language, and then respond with good emotion regulation. When you do this, you may learn that there are a lot of encounters that do not warrant anger. What’s more, the intense and frequent emotional reactivity can subside, and emotional regulation can take its place.
Look For Healthy Ways To Release Your Emotions
Some people may believe that the key to getting rid of anger and the accompanying emotional reactivity is by suppressing and ignoring it. Unfortunately, anger doesn’t go away through suppression or neglect. Instead, those emotions can remain bottled up until there is no more room to store them. Then, you may end up reacting again. Instead, find ways to cope with your anger and let it out in healthy ways. You can do that without switching to emotional reactivity. Some emotion regulation strategies include taking a long walk or engaging in physical exercise to release your energy, as well as writing down your emotions in a journal. While the media may depict people punching pillows, venting, or being violent toward inanimate objects as acceptable solutions for managing anger, research suggests that doing so may actually increase aggression. For this reason, we should avoid engaging in these outlets.
Of course, you can also find ways to cope with anger that may distract you from the emotion and improve your mood as well. These are also good strategies for emotion regulation. For example, doing things like creating art, engaging in a favorite hobby, or dancing around are great ways to process anger as well. With good emotion regulation, you can use your emotional responses in positive ways – even your negative emotions can benefit you and others when you use them in arts, crafts, and exercise. Rather than emotional reactivity, you enjoy a pleasant pastime that makes you feel happy and content. Instead of negative reactivity, you create something that makes you feel proud.
Make a mental note now that if you have emotional reactions, the idea isn’t to suppress your emotions. Instead, you can focus on learning more about emotional reactivity, your emotions, how to process them, and what you can do to avoid outbursts in the future. Emotional regulation can take time to practice and learn. That said, doing this on your own isn’t always easy. Sometimes, everyone needs a little help with emotional regulation, especially when they have the challenge of emotional reactivity.
Getting Started With The Right Help
Although we might like to solve issues like emotional reactivity on our own, some of us could use a little guidance to move toward emotion regulation. This is especially true if this is your first time seeking out ways to improve your reactions to things around you.
There are resources out that can help you improve your emotional regulation. Mental health professionals can help willing participants learn more about their emotional reactivity, their emotions, their current behaviors, and what they can do to build better habits and cope with emotions. They can teach active listening, recommend medications that a doctor can prescribe, and suggest other helpful techniques. In short, a therapist can help people get past their emotional reactivity and go for improved emotional regulation to help them feel hopeful about their own abilities.
For some, finding help with their emotional reactivity may be as simple as looking for therapists near you. For others, however, problems like time constraints or few local resources can get in the way. This is where online counseling platforms offer mental health solutions for people with emotional reactivity.
For example, BetterHelp is an online counseling resource that makes it easier to get in touch with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home. If you are determined to change your emotional reactivity, working with an online therapist can help you feel inspired and excited to get started. Once you complete the initial questionnaire, you’ll be matched with a licensed therapist who is uniquely qualified to support you in reaching your emotional regulation goals. You can schedule appointments at times that work for your schedule, and even text your therapist in moments where you feel tempted to react.
Online therapy interventions have shown significant promise in aiding people who experience challenges with emotional regulation. In a randomized controlled trial investigating the impact of internet-delivered emotional regulation treatments for maladaptive anger, cognitive reappraisal, and mindful emotion awareness, results showed that the intervention was indeed effective in reducing anger expression and aggression, particularly for those who report higher levels of initial anger pathology.
Not everyone is born with exceptional emotional regulation skills – it is often a skillset we must continuously strive to improve. You do not have to let your emotions rule you. Instead, use psychopathology and the tips provided above to learn more about emotional reactivity, why you react, and how you can start managing your emotions. Over time and with patience, you will be grateful for your increased ability to handle emotional reactions without emotional reactivity interfering with daily life. Should you deem it helpful, an online therapist at BetterHelp can assist you through a nonjudgmental, empathetic approach – take the first step today in learning how to regulate your emotions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Causes Emotional Reactivity?
Many things can cause emotional reactivity, but it often starts in childhood. Child psychology may have the answers you seek. Often, emotional reactivity starts in childhood, during the child’s emotional development. Psychological science says that it can show up in children as moodiness, instability, and constant worrying. These internalizing symptoms, such as sadness or anxiety, can lead to depression or anxiety during childhood or later in life. Internalizing symptoms are symptoms that show up on the “inside” in the child’s emotions and cognitive functioning. In contrast to internalizing symptoms, children may also exhibit externalizing symptoms, which show up in their behavior, like acting out.
These young children aren’t typically equipped to cope with the emotional demands of new situations. Sometimes these internalizing symptoms show up after a sibling is born. Depending on the age differences as well as individual differences, the change may be difficult for them to manage. According to a clinical science study published by NIH, the normal developmental trajectories may be disrupted by this change in the family coupled with a particular child’s inability to respond to the change.
While the present study may need further analysis, future studies are needed to learn more about development and emotional reactivity. When the baby reached one year old, the highly reactive child became very close to the new baby or avoided it altogether. This is different from the usual trajectory, where there is conflict surrounding the new baby.
Affective science shows how an excessive emotional response comes about. When you are faced with something that upsets you, your autonomic nervous system overreacts. That’s because your excessive emotional response sets off an extreme reaction. Cortisol reactivity may increase your emotional reaction. After all, your body is a part of this, too, along with your thinking and behavior. One of the most unfortunate things about cortisol reactivity is that it is among the risk factors for a wide range of stress-related illnesses.
Your emotional processes are still there when you have positive emotions and good development. Yet, when your emotional processes are responding to an exaggerated reaction, you may have trouble regulating your emotions.
However, the emotional intensity of your reactivity could change at any time in your life, whether in early childhood when you are developing emotion, in early adolescence when you are adjusting to your growing body, as young adults, or later in life. When it happens, your emotional processes don’t necessarily work in the healthiest ways.
Still, working to improve the way you think and react to your strong emotions can help you avoid problems like anxiety disorders and internalizing symptoms, including depression symptoms. In this way, cognitive reappraisal can even reduce your risk of depression and anxiety when you don’t react impulsively so often. Then, your mental health can improve.
What Is High Emotional Reactivity?
On the Emotion Reactivity Scale, high reactivity may show up as (SITB). In other words, the stress reactivity is so extreme that the person thinks of harming themselves, so they have higher scores on the scale. It’s true that these are depressive symptoms, but they can happen because of your own reactions.
The Perth Emotional Reactivity Scale helps therapists determine the extent of a reactivity problem. Based on analysis from the study linked, evidence suggests that the scale works well to discover the degree of reactivity in someone’s strong emotions.
On the PERS scale, higher scores in general negative features of reactivity mean that you are more likely to react, while high scores in general positive features mean you react quickly and easily to your positive feelings.
This reactivity may damage your mental health, especially when you are facing stressful life events. You may develop anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, or other mental disorders and physical illnesses.
What Are Examples Of Emotional Reactions?
You may find examples of emotion in your own reactions. For example, you might get upset when your taxi doesn’t come on time. You may react impulsively by becoming angry and yelling at the driver when the taxi finally arrives. However, you could have responded differently. If it happens again, you can think about whether you have another option. If not, you know that the best choice is to wait for a taxi. After you’ve taken time to breathe and think clearly, you can choose the best way to respond to your difficulty.
Another example is if someone tells you they don’t have time to do something to help you. Assuming that they are trying to avoid you, you get angry or worried that your relationship is over. There is a way to cope with these strong emotions, though. You can take a moment to practice active listening to find out what is going on with them. You may discover that they are experiencing some strong emotions themselves. Or, they may simply have an important activity to do on the day you asked them to help with something. Then, you are focused on them rather than being caught up in your own reactions.
Remember that, in both examples, you could have made a different choice. Your therapist can guide you in practicing cognitive reappraisal so that you choose to respond rather than react.
How Do You Heal Emotional Reactivity?
Healing from constant emotional disturbances can take time and help. Talking to a therapist online or face to face can help you learn to regulate emotions better. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one treatment for this issue. Your counselor can teach you how to practice active listening and model active listening as they provide treatment.
After learning to take a cognitive reappraisal of your emotions, you can try to process them more efficiently and effectively. Cognitive reappraisal refers to changing your behavior after experiencing events that bring emotion. When you practice cognitive reappraisal, you may become healthier in your mood and emotions, function better socially, and have an overall better sense of well-being. What’s more, according to a Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience article explaining the present study of reactivity of this type and including extensive research, your brain structure and the way your brain works can change when you make a habit of cognitive reappraisal. This clinical psychology review includes a vast number of studies.
After learning cognitive reappraisal, you can change your behavior to respond more appropriately rather than reacting emotionally. And when you make a habit of responding thoughtfully rather than reacting, your cognitive reappraisal can pay off in a higher level of emotional stability.
If you have other signs of trouble related to your emotions, such as depressive symptoms, it’s even more important to seek help for your psychological wellbeing. Depressive symptoms can come from a problematic pattern of reacting emotionally first rather than responding with thoughtful action. One of the most severe depressive symptoms is thought of self-harm, as mentioned before in the discussion about the scale that does inform clinical science of the extent of emotional reactivity.
In this case, you should pay attention to any depressive symptoms and seek help right away. According to psychological science, depressive symptoms can include emotional symptoms, cognitive symptoms, and physical symptoms. The emotional depressive symptoms may be sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, irritability, or other internalizing symptoms. Cognitive depressive symptoms may be forgetfulness or trouble concentrating or making decisions. Physical depressive symptoms may be eating or sleeping too much or too little. If you see these depressive symptoms, seek help as soon as possible.
Among this present study article are research projects that show how strategies can impact a dependent variable, such as the consequences of particular emotions, thoughts, and social functioning. Independent variables have no bearing on those consequences.
What Is A Reactive Person Like?
A reactive person tends to get upset easily. They may be angry often and rarely practice active listening. Instead, they tend to have a strong reaction immediately, before they even know what is going on or what the other person is trying to say.
A reactive person may also be sad or worried often if they are having symptoms of depression or anxiety related to their reactivity.
How Do I Stop Reacting To Emotional Triggers?
One of the best ways to stop reacting is to learn how to do active listening. Active listening can help you find out the current situation more clearly. Yet, active listening does more. Because you are engaged with the active listening process, you aren’t solely focused on your emotions. You are thinking and using a technique, so your emotions may be quieter. Take a mental note of this: you can stop reacting by occupying your mind with active listening and paying attention to the other person instead of your own reactions.
When you listen and understand what is happening, you can engage in cognitive reappraisal to choose more effective and healthy behaviors. That’s why listening is often critical to prepare for practicing cognitive reappraisal.
How Do You Release An Emotional Trigger?
The best way to release these triggers is to maintain internal consistency within yourself. Working with a therapist helps you learn and practice techniques that make staying calm and thoughtful easier, even when a negative emotion hits you hard. With this internal consistency, your first response becomes your best response.
Then, you may naturally turn to art, music, exercise, or other non-damaging activities to release those triggers time after time.
Why Do I React To Everything With Anger?
If you react impulsively with anger, the problem may have started in your childhood. According to a study of Head Start children, sociological and demographic characteristics of the children in the study included parents who had less education or were single parents. This puts them at higher risk for behavior problems and, consequently, a higher risk of reactivity in emotions. Therefore, using these study variables, it seems that if you fall into this category, you may have started out with a greater likelihood of having reactivity problems. If your early social development puts you at risk for emotional reactivity, talking to an individual or family counselor can often help.
Remember that there are always individual differences. Even if you grew up with well-educated parents who remained a couple throughout your childhood, it doesn’t mean you will never have a challenge with managing your feelings. Because of these differences that exist for everyone, you may not discover the why of this issue until you explore it in therapy.
However, there are many other factors to consider. Independent samples in studies show that people with a high score in reactivity may come from families where one or both parents are abusive, worriers, or absent.
How Do You Calm Down Before Reacting?
Calm down by getting away from the situation, breathing deeply, practicing meditation, or getting engaged in a creative or physical activity.
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