emotional reactivity

What is Emotional Reactivity and How to End the Cycle

What is Emotional Reactivity?

When we feel stressed, angry, or hurt, we tend to react impulsively. We are in a state of fight-or-flight and tend to react emotionally, that is, to overreact.  That overreaction is emotional reactivity.

In that moment, our perceptions of the situation are altered. The emotional charge prevents us from seeing the situation for what it is. Instead, we react. At this point, there is no listening going on anymore. Our emotions and defenses are driving our behaviors.

Start with Active Listening

Slowing down and actively listening are essential to ward off emotional reactivity. When we listen actively, we are attempting to take in what the other is saying at face value. The goal is understand the message without letting our own biases, thoughts and emotions get in the way.

Active listening does not mean shutting down your feelings though. If you feel some emotions while your loved one is speaking, make a mental note of them but don’t let them explode.

After actively listening, ask some questions to understand your partner’s position fully. Once you have a solid grasp of your loved one’s position, check in with yourself and explore your feelings and thoughts. After that, it’s your turn to speak. Share your thoughts and emotions as matter-of-factly and calmly as possible.

Sometimes our emotions are very intense, yet we can’t seem to make sense of them or properly articulate them. If that’s the case, go back to them on your own or with a therapist and explore further. There’s something there.

With active listening, we can get to the underlying issues with much less conflict.

Recognition is the Way Forward

Once we recognize our own reactivity and figure out our triggers, we become aware of how prone we are to misread people.

It takes a fair bit of self-discovery to uncover some of the underlying triggers behind emotional reactivity, but the benefits are obvious: less unnecessary emotional disturbance, a better relationship with your loved ones, and seeing your partner and reality more clearly.

Emotional Regulation – The Balancing Act

The minute we try to repress or push our feelings away, the sooner we feel defeated. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it’s better to feel through our emotions, to let them in and be okay with them, than to try to restrain them. We can do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our systems either.

Emotional regulation, that ability to control how we react to strong emotions, can be learned and mastered through practice. Therapy and self-examination make this process more effective.

Emotional regulation often involves diffusing heated situations by not immediately acting, practicing active listening techniques, and temporarily removing ourselves from certain situations. We can learn strategies to bring down the intensity of the situation and perhaps later re-approach it with composure.

Since reactivity is often a product of self-preservation, it helps to focus on the feelings and desires of the other person involved, seeing them as another feeling human rather than a threat. We can verbalize our own feelings calmly and honestly and also consider the other person’s to find resolution.

Many therapists integrate mindfulness practice into this process to help patients focus on the present and regain perspective.  Mindfulness has a cumulative effect when practiced regularly. We get better at it and lower our stress threshold over time. It also helps steer our minds back toward processing rather than reacting.

Points to Remember…

  1. Most of us react all the time. Try to put your own reactions and emotions aside to truly hear what the other person is saying.
  2. We are emotionally reactive when we react impulsively: we overreact.
  3. Find calm and actively listen.
  4. You can learn techniques to diffuse intense situations: practice listening to the other person, not acting right away, or removing yourself from the situation.