Life is full of unexpected events. The guy who cuts you off in traffic. The colleague who interrupts you as you’re speaking. The friend who makes a weird face at you.
It’s hard to not react emotionally to these things sometimes. I mean, how dare they? Our defense system kicks in to protect our boundaries. But more often than not, these reactions can be a bit overblown and based on negative assumptions. Perhaps that guy is in a rush to get home to his sick kids, your colleague is nervous before a big meeting, and your friend is just holding back a sneeze.
It’s hard to control our emotions and reactions to them. But with solid strategies, it’s possible. In this article, we’ll explore 9 key ones so you can enjoy better relationships and well-being.
- What does it mean to react emotionally?
- What happens when we react emotionally?
- What can trigger you to react emotionally?
- 9 tips to stop reacting emotionally
- Wrapping up
What does it mean to react emotionally?
In an article by cognitive behavior therapy expert Dr. Shinar, emotional reactivity is described as:
Emotional reactivity happens when intense emotions are “triggered” by an external event. Often, the event leaves you feeling hurt, angry, or defensive. These triggers may cause you to lash out or act impulsively– doing or saying something you later regret.
When we react emotionally, it is from a place of stress. This impulsive reaction is not thought through, which means whatever we come out with in the heat of the moment is rarely a true reflection of what we think and feel anyway.
I have a few highly emotional people in my life, and if I’m honest, I intentionally spend less time with them now because my nervous system feels unsafe in their company.
What happens when we react emotionally?
We don’t allow mature and rational conversations when we react emotionally. Meaning we close ourselves off from engaging openly and honestly with others which can damage relationships.
Reacting emotionally feels like living in a constant state of fight or flight. It is exhausting and can lead to increased anxiety levels.
There are physical symptoms that coincide with emotional reactions. Here are some physical signs of an emotional reaction, which we can identify in people who are quick to anger or become defensive and argumentative.
- Increased heart rate.
- Reddening of the face.
- Muscle tension.
On the flip side, no visible or even invisible changes occur in our bodies when we respond from a place of peace and calm.
What can trigger you to react emotionally?
According to psychotherapist David Richo, there are 9 main reasons why you get triggered:
- You feel self-conscious, like when you’re alone at a social event or compare yourself to others.
- You feel discounted, like when someone ignores your messages or doesn’t show up to a date.
- You feel controlled, like when someone tells you what to do or makes a decision for you.
- You feel taken advantage of, like when someone doesn’t pay you back the money they owe you.
- You feel vulnerable, like when you’re in a situation where you feel exposed.
- You have a negative relationship experience, like feeling lonely or smothered.
- You feel your boundaries are breached, like when someone steps inside your space.
- You feel uncomfortable about what’s happening around you, like when you see someone getting hurt or a person’s words go against your values.
- You’re afraid of what might happen, like when there seems to be a threat.
This is important to know for two reasons.
1. Triggers are a natural protection mechanism
Think about this: if someone came at you with a knife, your subconscious would give you an impulse to knock it out of their hand or run away. It perceives danger and takes control of your mind to make sure it’s protected. If it allowed you time to think about the situation rationally, it would be too late. That’s why these reactions are lightning-fast.
Obviously, this is extremely helpful in the situation above. But the problem is it’s the same mechanism when you get triggered emotionally. Only this time it’s not a threat against your life but against a need such as stability or respect. And, the threat can be something that only you perceive, based on the way you interpret things.
However, what’s key here is that you’re not a bad person for getting triggered. It’s just your subconscious mind wanting to protect you. You can definitely work on finding a better coping mechanism. But don't beat yourself up over having this very natural reaction.
2. When you’re more aware, you have greater control
Personally, just knowing the 9 causes has helped me be less emotionally reactive. When a friend said something to me a few days ago, I felt an immediate and strong emotional reaction. But then I remembered the list above and could identify which trigger I was experiencing.
Therefore, I could see that my reaction wasn’t because my friend was actually hurting me. It was because of an uncomfortable feeling, made by my interpretation of their words. And that helped me see that reacting out of anger will not fix the way I’m feeling.
Get familiar with these triggers, and it can help you slow your reactions down. In addition, use the 9 tips for how to not react emotionally below.
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9 tips to stop reacting emotionally
As you know, it’s hard to slow down your reaction in the heat of the moment. So if you really want to be less reactive, you need to work on your overall mindset. This will help you understand what’s happening when you get triggered. You’ll be able to hit pause and choose a better response.
Here are 9 key tips to help you out.
1. Get to know your triggers
“Know thyself” — this isn’t just a fancy-sounding phrase that looks great in an Instagram caption. It’s an extremely valuable, and terribly underrated piece of life advice.
Getting to know your triggers helps you notice when they come up again. For example, if I know I am sensitive if someone makes comments about what I eat, then I can realize when I get triggered the next time it happens.
This clarity is the first thing you need. It’s like waking yourself up from a dream. While you’re asleep, you don’t realize you’re dreaming, and you accept everything as reality. It’s only after you wake up that you see it was just in your head.
Self-awareness is the best way to “wake up” and get your rational mind back in control during a trigger.
Here’s how you can get to know your triggers:
- Make note of reactions you have throughout the day.
- Try to identify the cause of the trigger from the 9 categories listed above.
- Identify what emotions exactly you were feeling.
- Also, make note of relevant details like the environment or other people involved.
- Look for any recurring patterns.
Also, write down your reactions to these triggers. That way, you can recognize if you’re about to do the same thing and stop yourself.
2. Take good care of yourself
We all know the effects of poor sleep or being too hungry. Even just one all-nighter can slow your thinking and impair your judgment. Not to mention the way it makes you cranky! Therefore, under these conditions, you’re much more easily triggered.
The solution? Thankfully, it’s one that’s very simple and exceedingly pleasant. Eat when you’re hungry, and sleep when you’re tired!
Of course, there are situations when that is not always possible. (Your boss might not react kindly if you settle down for a nap in the middle of the quarterly meeting!) But you can set yourself up to be in the best shape you can.
Use these 3 tips to keep yourself healthy and more emotionally stable:
- Plan to go to bed 8 hours before the time you need to wake up.
- Keep a healthy and nutritious snack on hand in the car, at home, and at work.
- Carry a water bottle with you and stay hydrated throughout the day.
3. Understand that nobody “makes” you feel anything
You’ve probably said to someone at one point, “you made me feel XYZ”. But when you get down to it, nobody can make you feel a certain way. It’s all in your mind.
The best explanation I’ve heard for this was from a podcast episode by Kathrin Zenkina and Dr. Jon Connelly.
Connelly gave the example of a zebra seeing a lion. If the zebra’s mind wasn’t present, the zebra wouldn’t feel anything. It would just keep standing there, chewing its grass and minding its own business. But because the zebra’s mind is hardwired to see lions as a threat, it creates a fear reaction to make the zebra run away.
Another example from daily life
Let’s say you call a friend and they don’t pick up. If it’s a good friend you trust, you might think they’re busy or cannot pick up the phone right now. But what if it’s someone you’re dating, and you feel insecure in the relationship? Your brain might jump to conclusions like they’re ignoring you, or spending time with someone else.
It’s the same situation, but one triggers you and the other doesn’t. The only difference is how your mind interprets the event. So your emotions are not in fact forced upon you by the person not picking up, but created by your mind.
It might feel frustrating to think this way. Now, we can’t blame others for our emotions anymore. But also, it means we now have complete power over them. If emotions were in fact caused by external events, then someone not picking up the phone would always trigger you, no matter what you did. However, since it happens in your mind, you do have influence over that.
Use these 2 questions to remember this when you get triggered:
- If it was someone else, would I feel the same?
- Did I always feel this way every time it happened?
4. Take a breath before your answer
One of my favorite ways to stop responding to something emotionally is by recognizing when I feel triggered and then taking a few deep breaths before responding. If the circumstances allow, this is an excellent opportunity to take a sip of a drink to gain a couple of seconds to claim control of your emotions.
It may not seem like much, but taking just a few extra seconds before you reply can make the difference in reacting emotionally and responding rationally.
You can use this approach in the workplace, at home, or with friends. It is appropriate in every situation.
5. Practice being open-minded and positive
Another way to prime yourself to not react emotionally is to make a habit of thinking in a better way. Specifically, being open-minded and thinking positively.
Basically, you want to make this as familiar to you as possible. Then it becomes a default reaction even during times of stress. The goal is to break out of the negative explanation that you get locked into during a trigger. You’ll be able to consider other and more positive explanations.
A personal example of why open-mindedness is so important
I do Latin dancing and was at a weekend event where we had workshops and then time to dance and practice. I’m learning how to lead (meaning, the man’s steps), and an advanced female dancer saw that and asked me to dance with her.
I’m still pretty new at it, so I had to focus hard during the dance and felt a bit awkward about my mistakes. When we finished dancing, as I finally relaxed I made a sound like “ah!”. The girl stopped and said “Wait, what did that mean? Was it like ‘Ah, I’m glad I’m finally done dancing with her’, or what?” I was taken aback and told her no, it was because I was feeling embarrassed and insecure. From my perspective, this was obvious, but she had a completely different interpretation.
So imagine if she had not asked me to clarify. She would have assumed that I was being rude, and maybe she would have acted coldly to me. Meanwhile, I would have no idea why, and from my perspective, she would be the one who started acting rudely. We would then start a bad relationship even though we could be great friends — and all over an assumption.
Do you see how important it is to keep an open mind? This was a very specific example, but the idea is the same no matter the specifics.
Use these 4 tips to cultivate a better mindset:
- When someone frustrates you, ask yourself this. Why would a rational person with good intentions do or say this? What reasons would they have?
- Look at challenging events like this. The universe is giving you an opportunity to learn something, and this is a gift. What does the universe want you to learn here?
- Imagine just for a moment that your interpretation of events is wrong. What others are there? Do you have any definitive evidence that your interpretation is the correct one?
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions! When you catch yourself making assumptions about a person’s intentions or thoughts, ask them what they meant. Chances are, it’s something completely different than you thought.
6. Choose your battles wisely
Often if we feel trapped or cornered, we become defensive and feel the urge to explain ourselves. If you are feeling attacked, try and keep your cool, and don’t fight fire with fire.
As someone who has chosen not to have children, I am used to other people asking inappropriate questions or making ludicrous claims about my life. These used to annoy me, and I would engage with them from a place of irritation and defensiveness. Now I recognize I don’t owe anyone an explanation about why I don’t want children, and I can find the humor in the predictability of their words.
Another example is how I communicate with someone whom I have a particularly fractured relationship. She sometimes tries to antagonize me in conversations by bringing up topics on which we have polar opposite views. If she were prepared to listen without trying to make me wrong, I would happily engage with her on these controversial topics, but sadly this isn’t the case.
So the most straightforward tactic is politely saying, “We have very different views on this topic; I think it’s best we don’t discuss it again.”
7. Practice forgiveness
So maybe someone really was rude to you. Maybe they’re having a bad day, or they were triggered by something themselves. But is it really worth getting upset over? Sometimes the best reaction to an emotional trigger is to just forgive.
Forgiveness is like a secret weapon that makes you immune to anything that other people can say or do to you. It’s also a secret drug that improves both your physical health and mental well-being. In short, it’s one of the simplest and best ways you can improve your life.
It’s also necessary because nobody on this planet is perfect — us included. You’ve surely been rude to someone in your life — and you’ve surely had your reasons for that. In that situation, you would want compassion and understanding from others. We need to give others the same chance to be understood, grow, and move past their mistakes.
How do you practice forgiveness?
8. Let go of your past
Your past is like an invisible, yet extremely heavy baggage that you carry with you. In fact, it shapes the way you see the world today. All your experiences add up to create your beliefs, values, and also your triggers.
For example, if someone treats you with disrespect over and over again, you’ll become sensitive to anything that even hints at that.
In this case, you need to address the root cause. First of all, by processing any built-up emotions. And secondly, by detaching yourself from the past where it no longer serves you.
In the example above, you might have internalized the idea that you don’t get respect. Even if the person who treated you that way is no longer in your life, you may still hold onto that belief. But obviously, that doesn’t help you in any way.
So you would need to work through your feelings of being slighted and build up your sense of self-esteem. And, understand that this situation is behind you so you don’t look for it everywhere in your present.
You can absolutely learn from it to avoid being disrespected in the future. However, each new person you interact with deserves a clean slate rather than being pre-judged based on someone else’s actions.
How do you let go of your past?
Some things from the past are very difficult to deal with. I would honestly recommend regularly seeing a therapist as the best approach. It gives you a safe space to get another perspective so you can get out of your own mind. A therapist will also make sure your efforts are productive.
But if that’s not an option, journaling is another great tool. Just make sure you do it with the intention of getting to know your feelings and learning from your past. Otherwise, you can get stuck in rumination.
9. Release your built-up emotions
Finally, you might be emotionally reactive if you have a lot of emotions built up in you. For example, you feel taken advantage of over and over again, and so you build resentment. It becomes a filter through which you perceive everything that happens to you. You might see some things as someone taking advantage of you, even if that’s not the case.
Here’s how you can work on releasing these emotions:
- Do sports, especially cardio or martial arts.
- Get a deep tissue massage.
- Have regular sessions with a therapist.
- Journal with the intention of getting to know your emotions, processing them, and learning from the situations that caused them.
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Let’s be honest: becoming less emotionally reactive is hard work. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But the fact that you’ve read this article is already a huge step forward. It shows you have the willingness to try, and are ready to put in the effort. Practice the 9 tips above regularly. Over time, I’m sure you'll see a difference in your mindset, and react less emotionally.
How do you manage to not react emotionally when things get heated? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!