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Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you figure out whether you are overreacting, why you overreact, and how to stop. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.
Overreacting is not as clear of a word as it may seem in the context of emotions. Everyone has a different emotional landscape and what’s overreacting to one person may not be to the next.
Furthermore, an emotional overreaction is a valid emotional reaction. A person who experiences intense emotional reactions often tries to minimize their emotions with thoughts like, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
Thoughts like that aren’t helpful because whether or not you should feel a certain way isn’t relevant because you already do feel this way. Telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel a particular way will not help you find a real solution to the problem. You feel that way, and it’s okay.
However, it is possible to work on how you respond to certain situations and stimuli and how you act based on the emotions you feel.
What does an overreaction look like?
Not every extreme emotional reaction is an overreaction. Sometimes when big things happen, you’ll experience big emotions. That’s totally normal and to be expected. If a tragedy occurs, it’s normal to feel anxious, sad, or scared. If someone does you wrong, it’s normal to feel angry and wronged. On the other hand, if something wonderful occurs, it’s normal to feel joyful.
The difference between an overreaction and strong emotion is how it affects your life. The reaction becomes a problem when it starts negatively affecting your ability to conduct your life. Let’s give you a couple of examples to better illustrate the point.
– A coworker fails to perform a task which causes Sarah to get behind on her work. Anger is a fair and justified reaction. However, anger to the point where she can’t help but yell at the coworker or even take some physical action like throwing a stapler at the wall is not. That behavior will ruin her working relationship with her coworkers and probably get her fired.
– Jason’s partner was supposed to be home at 6 P.M. Still, they got held up at work until 7 P.M. That may cause Jason feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear because his partner didn’t call or let him know they’d be late. When they finally get home, those overwhelming emotions spark an argument because Jason is afraid and anxious about all the things that could have happened. Did his partner get in a car accident? Did something terrible happen? Are they off gallivanting around with some person he doesn’t know about? That kind of overreaction can sow distrust and will harm the relationship.
These feelings are valid because the fictional people in these scenarios genuinely feel these emotions. Those feelings may feel intense and disturbing. But on the other hand, those people may totally understand that they are overreacting to the situation but can’t get themselves to stop. Still, they need to accept that they have these emotions before they can adjust how they respond to them.
What causes overreactions?
There are several possible reasons for emotional overreactions. It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list. Still, the following examples give you ideas about what to look for. Another good strategy is to look back at times you overreacted in the past and figure out what caused the reaction.
1. Mental illness and trauma.
High emotional sensitivity or overreactions may be symptomatic of mental health issues. They can point to ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, C-PTSD, or personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder.
This kind of overreaction may also point toward trauma that is causing a person distress because their brain is trying to protect them from further harm. For example, early childhood trauma or neglect may cause a person to be oversensitive to situations that may simulate feelings from their early experiences. A child who is not allowed to relax or feel at ease with their adult may also develop a hyper-sensitivity to protect themselves from that adult.
2. Physical illness, chronic pain, or injury.
Chronic physical illness and pain will cause anyone to be irritable. However, that irritability can easily explode into emotional overreactions because the person’s patience is worn thin, and their mental reserves for dealing with stress are depleted.
Traumatic brain injuries and concussions may cause dramatic shifts in personality, emotions, and emotional responses.
3. Physiological needs are not being met.
A lack of sleep and hunger can both cause dramatic emotional responses. These things are so common that there are plenty of running jokes and even ad campaigns about them. (ex. You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Have this <candy bar>)
4. Emotional and relationship needs are not being met.
Relationships should fulfil the emotional needs of the involved partners. Sometimes they don’t. You and your partner may feel emotionally distant, which makes it much easier to feel irritable and angry at each other and at the wider world. It may also be that the two of you aren’t communicating well enough to have your emotions heard and validated. A misunderstanding of love languages and expressions may also contribute to this issue.
5. Feeling disrespected or unimportant.
Anyone should feel angry and irritable if they feel disrespected or unimportant. It may be that your thoughts and feelings aren’t being taken seriously, which spurs an overreaction as a defensive mechanism. To some extent, that kind of reaction is reasonable so long as it isn’t turning into a blinding, uncontrollable rage.
What is not an overreaction?
As previously mentioned, not every extreme emotional reaction is an overreaction. Sometimes intense emotions are relevant and justified.
The problem is that you often have people around you who want to tell you how you should and should not feel about a particular situation. This is wrong. No one should be telling you how you should feel. They should either accept it or not. Other people don’t necessarily need to accept the actions that follow those intense emotions. Again, let’s look at a few examples to better illustrate the point.
– Jenn’s cat dies. She’s had her cat since he was a kitten through good times. The cat is loved just as much as any other member of Jenn’s family. Understandably, Jenn will be extremely upset about the loss of her cat. She will be sad, troubled, and probably feel that way for a long time because of her deep connection with her kitty. However, not everyone else has that kind of connection or love for her cat. And some people just don’t get all that connected to their pets either.
Jenn may have people around her telling her that it’s not that big of a deal, that she can always get another cat, or that she’s overreacting to her loss. But she’s not. That’s a fair and reasonable reaction for someone losing something they love. In an ideal world, Jenn would receive support and understanding from the people around her; but we don’t live in an ideal world, and people generally aren’t all that emotionally intelligent.
– Carlos finds out that his wife has been having an affair. He was under the impression that they had a good and loving relationship, so it was a complete surprise. Carlos feels hurt, betrayed, and like his whole world has been shattered into a million pieces. All his hopes and dreams for a future with his wife are now unstable. His life in the present now looks shaky. What if she kicks him out? Where will he live? What will he do? What if there are kids in the mix? Being cheated on is a traumatic expression, and infidelity trauma is real.
Carlos’s emotions are extreme and intense, but they are not overreacting. It’s reasonable for him to feel all those intense emotions and more. However, he still needs to be responsible for those feelings. For example, suppose he lashes out because he is angry and hurt. In that case, he may end up in jail, risk custody and visitation with his kids, or have other negative consequences.
How do I know if I’m overreacting?
Certain common indicators may help you determine whether or not you’re overreacting.
1. You may feel as though you struggle to control your emotions.
Your emotions may run so high that you have no choice but to ride them out. However, people who do not experience these kinds of intense emotions can usually bring them under control or self-manage them without needing a lot of extra work.
2. You make a big deal out of even mundane things.
Small problems and changes in your life affect you in a big way. Something as simple as a minor disagreement with your partner, which happens in every relationship, may cause you to break into tears. You may find yourself questioning their love and care for you.
3. You experience changes in your body when emotions run high.
You may experience physical symptoms like a racing heart, tightness in your chest, stomach pains, abdominal distress, or hot flashes. These are also common symptoms of anxiety.
4. You feel irritable and on edge for no reason.
Do you feel irritable and angry for no identifiable reason? That may point to hypersensitivity of your emotions.
5. You may feel as though your partner is regularly insensitive.
You may feel as though your partner just doesn’t get your emotions. It may be that you don’t feel understood or that they are not reacting strongly enough to a situation causing your emotions to run high.
6. You may dismiss or have a difficult time understanding your partner’s feelings.
You and your partner may be on entirely different emotional wavelengths. Both of you may find that you have a difficult time understanding how the other feels. This is because their emotions may not be as strong or reactive as yours are.
7. An excessive amount of anger, crying, name-calling, or yelling.
You may find that you have an overwhelming surge of emotions that prevents you from engaging in meaningful conversations with your partner. As a result, you may find that you cut them off in conversation, minimize their feelings, or don’t give them any chance to explain.
8. Disconnecting or dissociating from the present moment.
It could be that your emotions are so intense and overwhelming that you just can’t function in the present moment. So instead of feeling anything, you shut down and cannot participate in the conversation.
How can I self-manage my overreactions?
1. Identify emotional triggers that cause you to overreact.
There are likely specific circumstances that cause that sudden flood of emotions. It may be words spoken to you, the way they’re spoken to you, situations that make you feel anxious or afraid, or anything that spurs an emotional response in you. However, you can find ways to work around these triggers if you can identify them.
One good way to identify triggers is to reflect on other situations where you overreacted. Examine the incident from when you felt okay through when you started feeling the emotional response through the overreaction. Can you pick out what events caused your emotions to ramp up?
2. Ensure you are taking care of yourself.
It’s not always easy to engage in appropriate self-care, especially if you have mental health struggles. Many people with mental health problems have difficulty eating consistently, sleeping well, or maintaining the kind of life that allows them to provide adequate care for themselves.
Still, make the best effort to smooth out those rough edges. Exercise, eating well, sleeping well, and reducing drugs, alcohol, and stimulants can all help lessen emotional reactions.
3. Work on your communication skills.
Make an active effort to improve your ability to communicate with other people. This may require more effort in learning how to express your emotions and needs to others. You may also need to work on hearing what the other person is telling you without reading into their words. People with anxiety or high emotions may find that they add emotions and context that don’t exist.
The advice to focus on “I” statements versus “You” statements is applicable here. That is, “I feel angry and disrespected when the dishes aren’t done.” rather than “You never do the dishes!” “I” statements help people get to solutions more effectively.
Avoid making assumptions about what other people are thinking or feeling. Let them express that themselves. You’re not a mind-reader.
4. Take a break.
If you find yourself overreacting in your relationship on a regular basis, sit down with your partner and agree ahead of time to allow yourself a break when emotions are high. Allow yourself to cool down before you get involved in the discussion.
And look, there’s some old advice to “Never go to bed angry.” But that’s kind of an ignorant statement to make. Sometimes a good night’s sleep will create some distance from the problem to allow you to see that you weren’t acting rationally, just so long as you’re not up all night fuming about it. If you are, you’ll be angry and irritable the next morning, so the fight will likely go on.
5. Find a healthy way to vent your feelings.
A healthy way to vent your feelings does not include arguing with people. An obvious statement, right? Healthier ways to vent your feelings include taking time to journal them out, meditating on them, or finding another outlet that provides you some emotional, cathartic release. Art may be a good outlet as well. What’s important about the activity is that it lets you feel your emotions, so they don’t sit and ruminate in your brain.
6. Seek help from a trained mental health specialist.
There’s a good chance you will need help from a mental health professional to address why you are overreacting. Once you address the cause, you will find that your emotions are far less intense and easier to control. Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are effective at helping people control their emotions and make better choices.
A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
You don’t have to be controlled by your reactions and overreactions. It will take some work, but you can make them smaller and more manageable.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You may also like:
- Emotional Flooding: What It Is, Symptoms, Dealing With It
- 10 Ways To Control Your Emotions In The Moment (+ 7 In The Long Term)
- 12 Strategies To Use When You’re Feeling Irritable
- 10 Ways To Respond, Not React, In Moments Of Stress
- Trauma Triggers: Identifying, Dealing With, And Managing Them