Do you sometimes yell, thump the table or slam a door?
It’s a pretty dramatic response to something that’s really upset you. People say acting out like that gives them a release and makes them feel better. The truth however is that it actually increases their stress levels, and those around them experience it as manipulative and bullying.
So it’s not particularly useful behaviour!
I don’t normally overreact like this, but sometimes I do something similar. You see, I overreact in my mind. It’s when something so upsetting happens that I feel bullied or deeply humiliated. Then the events play over and over again in my mind, and I re-experience all the toxic feelings.
When a reaction like this in my mind gets going, it’s really hard to stop it.
What triggers an overreaction?
Faulty logic usually is at the heart an overreaction like this, according to psychologist Albert Ellis. He says an overreaction comes from one or more faulty assumptions or expectations we have:
I should do well
You should treat me well
Life should be easy
When something intense happens and our expectations like these are not fulfilled, they trigger overreacting feelings such as envy, rejection, resentment and loss of control, according to stress expert Judith Siegel. As the over-reaction builds, you increasingly narrow your focus, seeing things as either good or bad, and old unhappy memories from the past flood you with intense negative feelings. This toxic mix of faulty intellectual assumptions and powerful negative feelings can result in overreacting – which often results in doing and saying things that you later regret. Then your ability to cope, to keep stress positive and to be resilient is severely impaired.
If this happens to you, how can you stop overreacting?
Well, let me tell you what I find helps:
1. I try to create distance between myself and the incident. This allows me to calm down:
I tell myself that I’m not going to think about this now, and will deal with it later.
I do something else which demands all my attention, and which forces the incident into the back of my mind.
2. I try to get perspective.
I create balance in my mind by saying to myself: “This upsetting thing is happening, and at the same time I’m really grateful for …”, and “This upsetting thing is happening, and at the same time these good things are happening to me…”
I seek out other people and check in with what’s happening in their lives, which refocuses my attention.
I go running. It’s a great stress reliever, although I do need to have enough time to “run it all out”!
I discuss the incident with a trusted friend or colleague. This helps me identify the emotional triggers and faulty logic that I may have.
3. I try to change my focus
I use three powerful questions to shift my focus away from the past of how bad, unjust, unfair and hurtful the incident was, to the future. In so doing, I shift my emotions from intensely negative to be more optimistic and enthusiastic. The three questions which work wonders for me are:
How can I come to terms with this and accept it’s happened?
What can I learn from this?
Is there an opportunity to take action to move forward?
4. I try to respond rather than react
I sometimes feel I need to do something about what has happened. I feel if I don’t, I may be seen as weak or condoning what has happened. If so, then:
I try to take considered action. I try to not simply react, but rather to respond appropriately to the severity of the situation.
I ask myself what small, helpful step can I take right now?
In the end, overreacting is a choice we make in dealing with a distressing situation. If you would like to stop overreacting, the solution is to find more considered ways of responding.
How do you keep negative events in perspective, and keep yourself from overreacting?
I would love to hear from you!
Head of Personal Resilience and Accountability
Judith Siegel, Stop Overreacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions New
Albert Ellis. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me – It Can Work for You
Prometheus Books, 2004