Help for Emotional Reactivity

I’ve talked with many people who struggle with emotional reactivity and mood swings. Some are Bi-Polar or Borderline. Most just get overwhelmed by their emotions. They say things they regret, have outbursts of tears, lose their temper, and act on their feelings before thinking clearly.

To develop self-control they need to learn to think with their gut and feel with their head, to integrate their thinking and feeling dimensions.

Sandra’s Story of Emotional Reactivity

Sandra (not her real name) was struggling with emotional reactivity. She often overreacted out of emotion and said or did things that she regretted later and that caused her problems.

Sandra had a highly successful career as a saleswoman, although she often switched companies because of her emotional problems. A pattern emerged in each of her jobs. She’d lose her temper with “lazy” assistants who didn’t measure up to her standards.  And yet, she lived in fear of others, like her boss, being harsh or critical of her – so much that her annual performance review brought on an anxiety attack.

She especially had difficulties at home where she would often lose her temper at her kids, criticize her husband, or lock herself in her room to cry when she was upset. Consequently, her family walked on egg shells around her for fear of upsetting her or putting her in a bad mod. They treated her with kid gloves to avoid hurting her feelings and exacerbating tension in the home.

Emotional Detachment and Reactivity

Interestingly, people who appear to be very calm or rational can also can be reactive, overly sensitive, moody, and unstable.  Sometimes those with an apparent “cool head” are actually just detached from their feelings.  When they get into an emotionally difficult situation they too are liable to “lose it.”

For people like this, being calm, cool, and collected is their defense against emotional reactivity. They’ve tried to “cut off” their emotional side.  The problem with this defense is not only that it hides underlying emotional needs and hurts, but also that it means not really living life at all.  Life without depth of feeling is a black and white world.  Relationships without vivid emotions are shallow and boring.  Decisions that don’t take feelings into account are often bad ones.

Ironically, emotional reactors and those who are detached often hook up in marriage or friendship.  On the surface they appear to be so different, but inside — in their character structure, ability to set boundaries, and level of emotional maturity — they may be quite similar.  Often, the cool head in the relationship is quick to blame the emotional reactor for their conflicts, but he or she is just as much a part of it.  The cool head’s detachment is hurtful and avoids conflicts that need to be dealt with.  Then when he or she finally is drawn into a conflict his or her emotional reactivity may become a problem too (though it may be blamed on the partner who “triggered” it).

Are You Overreactive?

Perhaps you identify with either Sandra’s emotionality or the calm, detached type of person that reacts periodically.  Most of us, if we’re honest, have to admit that at times we can be reactive emotionally or use detachment as a defense against pain and conflict.  The problem is with extreme or frequent episodes of out of control emotion or being detached when you need to be emotionally involved and responsive.

Of course, learning to better manage your feelings and reactions to people and situations begins with identifying your problem.  Consider how you handle your emotions.  Do you react in emotional extremes?  Are you prone to lose your temper or to become overcome with sudden floods of tears or panic?

Or, are you on the other extreme?  Do you detach from people and situations because you’re uncomfortable with conflict, emotions, or being vulnerable?

To better assess if you may have an emotional reactivity problem, you can take our Emotional Roller Coaster Test. This can help you understand your personal and relational dynamics.

Step away to reflect and prayH-A-L-T Before You Respond

What did Sandra learn to do in order to stop overreacting emotionally?  How can you learn to better manage your emotions?  Instead of being emotionally reactive you need to learn to be emotionally responsive.

The key first step in this process is halting. Back away from an escalating conflict. Hold your tongue when you’re about to lash out. Don’t answer an emotionally loaded question on the spot. Wait to make an important decision. Don’t say or do anything until you take time to process your feelings. 

Setting a boundary so you have space to process your is especially important when you’re under stress. If you think about it, it’s when you’ve been over-stressed that you’re particularly vulnerable to a lapse of self-control and saying something hurtful or making a decision you regret or misusing alcohol, food, or something else.

So be prepared to H-A-L-T and to not say or do anything for awhile if you’re:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely (or hurt)
  • Tired (or under time pressure)

Halt and eat the meal you skipped. Step away and calm down if you’re angry. Don’t isolate if you’re lonely or hurt. Take a breather if you’ve been overworking. Obviously, if you’re in two or more of the four H-A-L-T conditions at the same time then you’re in an even more dangerous place and really need to stop and step away!

When you halt, you need to “contain” your feelings that are coming up. Keep your feelings inside so that you don’t escalate a conflict, rush an important decision, or say or do something that you’ll regret later. You want to hold onto these feelings until you can get the support you need to help you respond in a way that you’ll feel good about.

Examples of Boundaries in Relationship

Emotional reactivity is one of the major problems that I help married couples and families with in counseling. It’s a sign of an enmeshed relationship. Clear boundaries of self-identity and separation need to be established so that mature, reciprocal love can flourish. It’s the person who is self-aware and secure in their belovedness who is most capable of caring for others. To set a boundary is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). This can be practiced. It’s like building up a muscle, your boundary muscle!

You want to grow to the point where it’s natural for you to respond to a situation of conflict that’s overwhelming you with a calm, loving boundary like, “I’m emotionally overloaded right now and need some space. I do want to work this out with you later.”

For instance, let’s say you’ve worked through your lunch hour and your boss calls, upset that you’re not done with a project you’re working on and starts pressuring your for an answer to a question related to that project.  You think you have an answer but you realize that you’re over hungry and your angry at the way your boss is pressuring you.   If you don’t watch yourself you might say something that would make things even worse with your boss.  So you halt and buy yourself the time you need to take care of your feelings and sort through your thoughts on the subject by saying something like, “I’m in the middle of something right now.  I’ll get back to you on that before I leave today.”

Or, what if at the end of long and exhausting day your husband loses his temper at you and criticizes you for how you handled a problem with one of your kids?   If you’re not careful you might react in anger and escalate the conflict between the two of you.  You’re tired and you’re upset that he didn’t appreciate your efforts with your child and was so critical.  Time to halt.  Better to talk this issue through later when you’re not so tired and upset.  You might say, “I’d like to talk with you about this situation later when I have more energy.  Can we talk in the morning about this?”

The same principle applies to compulsive behavior. In fact, the H-A-L-T acronym is used in 12 Step Recovery Groups. So if you’re lonely and you find yourself thinking about overeating it’s important to halt.  Instead, of acting out of your loneliness by indulging in food talk to a friend about how you feel.  Or sit down and write out your feelings in a journal or pray to God about how you feel.  It won’t give you a quick sugar high or numb out your pain, but in the long run you’ll learn how to meet your emotional needs and can grow in your participating in more loving relationships with others.

You can also practice the halt method on common situations in which someone presses you for a decision. If you’re vulnerable to an impulsive decision, perhaps to please the other person, consider setting a boundary to give yourself the space you need. You might simply say something like, “Let me think about this and get back to you.”

Process Your Emotions

What I’m illustrating is if you halt an escalating conflict or another situation in which you’re tempted to engage in compulsive or hurtful behavior then it makes space for you to process your emotions. What does it mean to “process”? It means to reflect and pray. What’s really going on here? What is God showing me? What is the best thing to do? Verbalizing your emotions is an important part of processing so it’s good to talk with a support person who will keep a confidence. Or you may find it helpful to journal your feelings, perhaps as a prayer, like you’re writing your own Psalm. (Most of the Psalms are laments describing emotional struggles.)

Processing is about becoming more aware of how you feel and the thoughts you’re having or need to have. It helps you to realize what you need, admit your part of a problem, and get your needs met. Talking through your emotional struggles with someone who has empathy for you helps you to become more secure and stable. Then you’ll be able to re-engage in conflict resolution in ways that are constructive, helpful, respectful, and loving.

Essential to verbalizing your stress and hurt is being supported by someone who extends compassion to you. And in an enmeshed or otherwise stressful or volatile relationship that person needs to be someone outside of the relationship — at least temporarily. You need support from someone who is able and ready to provide it.  You’re having more emotion than you can manage by yourself.  Or you need reliable input to make a good decision.  Or you need encouragement and accountability to not give into a temptation.

Join God in Caring for You

It’s okay to need support!  If it doesn’t feel good for you to be emotional, vulnerable or needy that’s a sign that you’ve been wounded in your development and are suffering under self-condemnation. God’s heart is open to whatever you feel or need. One way he’s shown us that is in the Psalms of the Bible in which he is the Therapist for the Psalmist. Another way is that he provides “Christ’s ambassadors” for us (2 Cornithians 5:20). All Christ-followers are called to be his ambassadors of reconciliation to others, but to extend this grace to others it has to live in us — not just doctrinally, but practically.

Tragically, I find it often to be true that the people who most need to be loved and to grow in grace have the most difficulty receiving it. They don’t metabolize love well. When someone is extending empathy or gentleness to them it doesn’t absorb in their system very well. To help people like this I say something like, “You need to join with God and me in caring for you.”

In other words to benefit from being listened to and cared for to it’s important that you join in caring for yourself while you’re being cared for. You need to ask to be listened to. You need to make it important to you that your friend is extending care. You need to “agree” with the compassion, affirmation, kindness, or encouragement that is coming your way. You’re learning to be self-accepting and to have self-care, which is natural for children who grow up secure in the experience that they are well-loved personally and deeply for who they are.

Get Rid of the Saboteur!

There is a stealth internal saboteur that may be undermining the care that others give to you (and that you give to others). Reactive people tend to be self-conscious about their emotional vulnerability and are embarrassed about how they feel and so they try to avoid their feelings. They’ve judged themselves as “too sensitive,” “overly emotional,” “weak,” or “needy” and, therefore, they’ve denied or repressed their feelings and personal needs. Of course, like the beach ball that you hold underwater, inevitably the unwanted feelings will pop up in emotional outbursts, hurtful words, or foolish actions.

So, instead of condemning yourself and denying your emotions and needs you need to practice good, biblical self-talk by saying affirming things to yourself like:

  • “There is no condemnation in Christ” (Romans 8:1)
  • “It’s okay to have emotions.”
  • “My needs are important too.”
  • “God and my friend (counselor, spouse, or parent) accept who I am even though I have flaws.”

The way to develop positive internal messages like these is to seek out Christ’s ambassadors who will share God’s grace with you (who embody the truths of the Bible and God’s love) then agree with them — again and again until little-by-little grace gets inside and overrides the negative tapes you recorded in the past.

(You can read more in “Be Free of Your Inner Saboteur.”)

Feel-Think-Do Triangle

Another goal of processing your emotions is to integrate them with your thoughts.  In other words, don’t just feel about your situation, but think about it too. Think about it with God. Pray and seek his wisdom. Then you’ll be more ready to speak calmly and act appropriately.  A lot of unnecessary conflicts and problems are avoided if you follow this simple rule: feel and think first before you speak or do.

If you feel and then act without thinking you’re being impulsive or reactive and, more often then not, you’ll hurt yourself or someone else.  If you think and then act without feeling then you’re detaching and not dealing fully with the situation. But if you feel and think about something then you have a better chance of choosing to say or do what is loving and effective.

Responding, Step-by-Step

Here’s a step-by-step summary of what we’ve discussed.  In order to respond well (and not overreact) to an emotional situation that is volatile, a big decision, or a temptation follow these steps.

  1. H-A-L-T at stress points and contain your emotions.
  2. Calmly set a boundary by saying something like, “I need to think about this and then I’ll get back to you.”
  3. Talk through your feelings with a safe friend and with God.
  4. Agree with the care you receive a Christ’s ambassador.
  5. Think about how you feel and feel about how you think.
  6. Re-engage in the conflict or situation that needs to be addressed, doing so with love for God, others, and self.

Learning to be responsive rather than reactive will pay rich dividends for you and those in relationship with you.   It will help you make better decisions and get along better with others.  It’ll help you accomplish more and earn other people’s respect.  It’ll help you develop more intimacy in your relationships.  It’ll help you to stay out of compulsive behavior patters.

It’ll help you stay calm and confident when dealing with other people who overreact!

And, most importantly, it will help you to be more loving to others in Jesus’ name.


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