Here are a few strategies to help you manage intense emotions.
Do you get mad over little things? Are you in tears over something another person could easily let go of?
Overreacting can be external, like yelling or needlessly blasting the horn in traffic. Or it can look like worrying all night that you said something stupid or wondering why the store clerk was so unfriendly.
Perhaps you recognize that you’re overreacting and want to find strategies for reacting more appropriately. Here are a few tips.
In psychology, the act of managing your emotional state is called “emotional regulation.” Emotional regulation strategies can involve reducing negative emotions, increasing positive emotions, or both.
Identify your triggers
Do you find yourself overreacting to the same things again and again? Perhaps you have a strong reaction to feeling ignored. Maybe you never felt heard by a parent, and now when your partner doesn’t listen to you, you react in anger or extreme sadness.
Think about what your triggers are and write them down. Identifying them is the first step, so that your feelings are conscious and don’t sneak up on you.
Emotion labeling is the act of specifically naming your emotions. For example, instead of saying “I’m really upset,” you might say “I feel so embarrassed and disappointed in myself that I failed the test.”
When we’re highly aware of how we feel and can communicate our feelings, our emotions feel less severe. In fact, research shows that labeling decreases activity in the amygdala, the brain region involved in emotions and fear.
Opposite action is an emotion regulation strategy often used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of therapy that helps you manage difficult emotions.
In “opposite action,” you engage in behaviors that match the opposite emotion of what you’re feeling. For instance, if you’re extremely nervous on your way to take an exam, try to behave as if you’re feeling excited and confident.
This isn’t another way of suppressing your feelings — you still need to label and release your fear. But acting confidently helps you remember that your reactions are changeable, and you have some control over them.
In psychology, emotional reappraisal involves reframing the situation into something more positive — or at least less negative. This strategy can be used to either increase positive emotions or decrease negative emotions.
For instance, let’s say you weren’t invited to a party that many of your friends are attending.
A reappraisal would be thinking that at least now you have the opportunity to save money on buying a new outfit — or that now you don’t have to worry about avoiding that one person who’s always rude to you.
Have you ever watched a documentary about a person who went through tremendous hardship? As you watched their story, you probably thought about how brave or strong they were.
But of course, they probably didn’t feel that way while going through it — they likely felt strong emotions, such as fear, sadness, or anger during that time.
In the self-distancing strategy, you look at yourself as though you were watching your situation from another person’s point of view. So rather than being completely immersed in your emotions and situation, view it from an outsider’s perspective.
The self-distancing technique helps you get some distance from your situation and helps you to avoid getting overwhelmed by your negative emotions.
A study from 2021 found that athletes who practiced self-distancing had less emotional reactivity, including aggressive behavior, over time.
Everything can feel so overwhelming in the present moment. The temporal distancing strategy involves shifting to a different time perspective.
For instance, let’s say you loan your friend your favorite shirt and they accidentally stain it. Rather than reacting in anger, imagine the scenario as if you’re looking back 5 years from now. Perhaps you will even laugh about it by then.
How do you know if you’re overreacting? In the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to feel like you could react any other way. But by the next day, you probably don’t feel the same. Perhaps you even regret it.
A few things can trigger us to react more emotionally than we typically would. If you think you’re overreacting, ask yourself the following:
- Am I hungry?
- Am I sleep-deprived?
- Am I overwhelmed with work or other responsibilities?
- Am I eating poorly? (e.g. sugar, refined carbs, too much caffeine)
- Am I in a hurry or running late?
- Am I affected by drugs or alcohol?
Another way to tell if you’re overreacting is to think about a person you know who’s very emotionally stable. What might they do in this situation?
If someone close to you is overreacting, try to respond with empathy. Perhaps start with “I understand why you’re so upset/mad/afraid…” and go from there. This helps them feel heard and shows that you’re not being dismissive.
Next make sure you moderate your own emotional response. If you react with as much emotional intensity, it will likely escalate the situation. If things become too heated, it’s probably best to remove yourself until they calm down.
This Psych Central article offers more information on dealing with an angry person.
With a little practice, you can develop better emotion regulation skills. With techniques such as identifying, labeling, and self-distancing, you can handle your emotions so that you stay in the driver’s seat, rather than vice versa.
These techniques will help improve your mental and physical health, as well as your relationships, work life, and overall quality of life.