Over-reacting is when your emotional response doesn’t match the current relationship situation. There are general types two kinds of overreactions: external and internal. External overreactions are visible responses that others can see. For example lashing out in anger, throwing your hands up and walking away from a situation. Internal overreactions are emotional responses that remain inside of you that others may or may not be aware of. Examples of internal overreactions are replaying over a situation over and over in your head wondering if you said the right thing, or over-analyzing a comment made by a friend or loved one.
In her book “Stop Overreacting” author Dr. Judith P. Siegel suggests asking yourself the following questions to assess whether you or not you have a problem with overreacting:
Do you often:
- Regret things you say in the heat of emotion?
- Lash out at loved ones?
- Have to apologize to others for your actions or words?
- Feel surprised at your seemingly uncontrollable reactions?
- Assume the worst about people and situations?
- Withdraw when things get emotionally overwhelming?
Dr. Siegel also identifies 4 general triggers for emotional overreactions:
- Envy – when someone gets something we want and we think we deserve
- Rejection – humans are hard-wired to need connection and inclusion with others and exclusion triggers same brain receptors as physical pain.
- Criticism – universal need to be approved of and accepted
- Control – desire to get what we want and protect what’s important to us
How to stop overreacting:
1-Don’t neglect the basics
Sleep deprivation, going too long without food or water, and feeling overly stressed leave your mind and body vulnerable to exaggerated responses. This seems like a no-brainer, but for many women in the name of “taking care of others” they let their own basic self-care slip and ironically, it is their loved ones who are likely to end up on the receiving end of their emotional overreaction.
2-Tune in & name it
A stiff neck, pit in stomach, pounding heart, tense muscles can all be signs that you’re in danger of overreacting, of being hijacked by your emotions. Becoming more aware of physical cues actually helps you to stay ahead of, and in control of your response. Naming your feeling activate both sides of your brain allowing you to reflect on your situation instead of just reacting to it.
Recently, my teen daughter was expressing some intense hurt feelings about our relationship. While she was talking, I noticed a hot feeling rising in my stomach, and defensive thoughts. Tuning in to my own body allowed me to slow down my own response so I could hear what she was saying and respond calmly.
3-Breathe before responding
When you feel like flying off the handle take a deep breath. Deep breathing slows down your fight or flight response and allows you to calm your nervous system and choose a more thoughtful and productive response.
Try taking a deep breath next time someone cuts you off in traffic. In my recent Facebook poll, overreacting while driving was the most commonly cited scenario for overreacting. Just imagine if all drivers took a breath before responding making hand-gestures, or yelling obscenities, the world would be a kinder place.
4-Put a positive spin on it
Once you’ve identified what’s going on in your body, you can intervene in your thoughts. When we have intense emotions it’s easy to go to a worst-case scenario as an explanation for whatever you’re reacting to. “They’ve never liked me” or “She always criticizes me”. Watch for all-or-nothing words like “always” and “never” as clues that you’re heading toward a worst-case scenario.
If someone offends you consider the possibility that the insult is not about you. Maybe the neighbor who snapped at you was just given a pay cut at work and feeling discouraged, or the person who cut you off in traffic is rushing to the hospital to see the birth of his first child. Make up a back-story that makes sense and puts a positive spin about whatever is triggering your emotional response.
5-Identify and resolve emotional “leftovers”
Notice patterns in your overreactions. If you find yourself revisiting a feeling or situation over and over again, there is likely a historical component to it that is being triggered that needs to be addressed.
In my therapy practice, I worked with beautiful, smart women who often became tearful and depressed when she heard about friends getting together without her. She felt extremely insecure and rejected. Her heightened sensitivity to being excluded by other women in her neighbor, even though she had many friends and was usually included in social gatherings was fueled by emotional “leftovers” in her past. She felt emotionally abandoned by her parents, ostracized by peers when she was young, which heightened her sensitivity to rejection as an adult. Through therapy I helped her to heal the earlier relationship wounds so she can be free to respond more clearly to present social situations.
Not all intense responses are overreactions
It’s important to note that not all intense emotional responses are overreactions. The distinction is whether your response matches the situation. In some instances, a quick and extreme response is necessary to protect our loved ones or ourselves. I recall a time years ago when my oldest child son was a toddler riding his trike down the street. He was riding ahead of me because I was pregnant and a lot slower than usual. As I noticed a car slowing backing out of a driveway as my son was approaching the driveway I found myself sprinting toward the car, screaming at the top of my lungs with arms flailing frantically as I tried to get the driver’s attention and avoid a horrible tragedy. Luckily, the driver noticed me and stopped her car just short of my son. My exaggerated response was necessary to save his life and was not an overreaction.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is a therapist, self & relationship expert, media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Visit www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com for individual, couple, family, & group counseling services designed to strengthen you and your family. We treat mental health and relationship problems in children, adolescents, and adults.
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