Ask a Therapist: Column #9 On Overreaction
Q: I feel like I overreact to the smallest things and I don’t understand why! Could you help me figure out why I seem to flip my lid so easily?
A: Perhaps the best place to start is to note that emotional regulation is a complex issue and certainly hard to address in a short column. Having said that, overreactions are one way that our emotions provide information that gets our attention because there is an underlying need that is not being addressed. The first step to understanding your extreme reactions is to start to be curious about them and to begin to ask questions to seek greater understanding! So, you are already on the right track!
When people experience disproportionate reactions, especially if they are recurring, it is important to explore the combination of factors that could be contributing to their ability to respond with greater emotional control. Typically, it is not just one thing that will cause people to feel like they are out of control so a holistic look at the whole picture is a good idea.
If we start by looking at personality, we know that people are wired up in different ways and will have different operating systems, if you will, as it relates to handling emotions. Often the most challenging emotions that people will experience fall into the broad categories of anger, fear, and shame, but not everyone will experience those emotions in the same way, the same order, or with the same intensity.
You might find that even if you access one of those emotions more often than the others, you may fail to recognize all of the other emotions that are a part of the reaction you are observing on the surface. It can be helpful to think of that emotional reaction of anger, for example, as only the tip of the iceberg with many other emotions occupying space below the water line. Even though you may appear to be angry, that anger may also have elements of fear, disappointment, sadness, or other feelings that need to be identified in order to provide the full understanding you seek. Exploring what is beneath the surface and helping to make sense of emotions is a key component of psychotherapeutic work.
Additionally, stress is a huge factor in someone’s ability to regulate emotion. As we all know, there are many stressors in our lives and our ability to manage them well is a vital component of self-care. Stress will naturally fluctuate in our systems but living at a consistent state of stress with no decompression or release is a significant overall health concern, not just in terms of the emotional effects. However, if your stress levels are moderated, you will find that you have a greater ability to be patient, flexible, and responsive.
To a great extent, our lifestyle choices have the power to significantly impact our stress capacity but there are situations that are outside of our control that can also be contributors to our emotional responses. An unexpected diagnosis, an accident or injury, relational discord, and the loss of a job or a loved one are only a few examples of situations that will certainly impact your ability to hold it together emotionally. It is important to have compassion and grace for yourself in these circumstances and to seek to unpack how these events may be, understandably, causing you to feel overwhelmed or emotionally unstable.
It is not uncommon for people to struggle with overreaction or extremes as a result of a personality disorder or a traumatic experience. Often, these specific concerns present particular challenges for individuals that will need to be addressed with a coordination of medical and mental health supports, like prescription medication and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, for example.
Of course, increased or problematic consumption of alcohol or the use of recreational drugs may also have negative affects on emotional control and should be taken into consideration as another potentially contributing factor. Regulating, limiting, or abstaining from the consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs is vital to support mental health.
At all times, to the degree that you are able, prioritizing consistent sleep, nutritional meals, and exercise is essential to overall health, including emotional health. If there have been significant changes in any of these areas, a person may find themselves overreacting as a result.
You might be thinking, “okay, so I can see some of the factors that might be causing some overreaction but what do I do about it?”
There are lots of helpful tools and strategies that can be learned and practiced with the support of a therapist to help individuals listen to, understand, and regulate their emotions. So, reaching out for help makes a lot of sense if you continue to struggle in this way. It can take some time to get fully to the heart of the issues so finding someone to talk to that can help provide education, encouragement, and guidance is a great next step to help facilitate change in this area of your life.
In general, disproportionate recurring reactions are your system’s way of communicating to you that you are not functioning optimally and that you need to pause and consider how to move towards rest, healing, and the rebuilding of emotional resilience.
To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help with emotional regulation and stress management, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and connection.