Do you fly off the handle for “no reason”? Have you been accused of being “hot-headed”? When the emotional intensity and severity of your behavior doesn’t match the situation at hand, you are overreacting.

There are two kinds of overreactions: external and internal. External overreactions are visible responses that others can see (for example, lashing out in anger, throwing your hands up and walking away from a situation). Internal overreactions are emotional responses that remain inside of you that others may or may not be aware of. Examples of internal overreactions are replaying a situation over and over in your head, wondering if you said the right thing, or overanalyzing a comment made by a friend or loved one.

In her book Stop Overreacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions, author Dr. Judith P. Siegel suggests asking yourself the following questions to assess whether you have a problem with overreacting.

Do you often:

  • Regret things you say in the heat of emotion?
  • Lash out at loved ones?
  • Have to apologize to others for your actions or words?
  • Feel surprised at your seemingly uncontrollable reactions?
  • Assume the worst about people and situations?
  • Withdraw when things get emotionally overwhelming?

If you answered “yes” to the questions above you may may struggle with overreaction.

Here are 5 suggestions to help you stop overreacting:

  1. Don’t neglect the basics. Lack of sleep, going too long without food or water, lack of recreation and play can leave your mind and body vulnerable to exaggerated responses. For many of us (myself included), it’s easy to let our own basic self-care take a back seat to the noble cause of taking care of others. Ironically, it is your loved ones who are most likely to end up on the receiving end of your emotional overreactions. Prioritizing your own self-care will help minimize overreactions.
  2. Tune in and name it. A stiff neck, pit in stomach, pounding heart, tense muscles can all be signs that you’re in danger of overreacting, of being hijacked by intense emotions. Becoming more aware of physical cues actually helps you to stay ahead of, and in control of your response. Naming your feeling activates both sides of your brain allowing you to reflect on your situation instead of just reacting to it.

    Recently, my teen daughter was expressing some intense hurt feelings about our relationship. While she was talking, I noticed a hot feeling rising in my stomach, and defensive thoughts. Tuning in to my own body allowed me to slow down my own response so I could hear what she was saying and to respond calmly.

  3. Put a positive spin on it. Once you’ve identified and named the sensations in your body, you can intervene in your thoughts. When we have intense emotions it’s easy to go to a worst-case scenario as an explanation for whatever you’re reacting to (e.g., “they’ve never liked me” or “she always criticizes me.”) Watch for all-or-nothing words like “always” and “never” as clues that you’re heading toward a worst-case scenario.

    If someone offends you, consider the possibility that the insult is not about you. Maybe the neighbor who snapped at you was just given a pay cut at work and is feeling discouraged, or the person who cut you off in traffic is rushing to the hospital to see the birth of his first child. Make up a backstory that makes sense and puts a positive spin on whatever is triggering your emotional response.

  4. Breathe before responding. When you feel like flying off the handle, take a deep breath. Deep breathing slows down your fight or flight response and allows you to calm your nervous system and choose a more thoughtful and productive response. Try taking a deep breath next time someone cuts you off in traffic. In my recent Facebook poll, overreacting while driving was the most commonly cited scenario for overreacting. Just imagine if all drivers took a breath before responding, making hand gestures, or yelling obscenities. The world would be a kinder place.
  5. Identify and resolve emotional “leftovers.” Notice patterns in your overreactions. If you find yourself repeatedly revisiting an intense emotional or behavior response, there is likely a historical component that needs to be addressed. In my therapy practice, I worked with a beautiful, smart woman who often became tearful and depressed when she heard about friends getting together without her. She felt extremely insecure and rejected. Her heightened sensitivity to being excluded by other women in her neighborhood, even though she had many friends and was usually included in social gatherings, was fueled by emotional leftovers in her past. She felt emotionally abandoned by her parents and ostracized by peers when she was young, which heightened her sensitivity to rejection as an adult. Through therapy she was able to heal the earlier relationship wounds, allowing her to respond in a more balanced way to present social situations.

Remember, not all intense responses are overreactions. In some instances, a quick and extreme response is necessary to protect ourselves or our loved ones. I recall a time years ago when my oldest child was a toddler riding his trike down the street. He was riding ahead of me because I was pregnant and a lot slower than usual. I noticed a car slowly backing out of a driveway as my son was riding toward the driveway. I found myself sprinting toward the car, screaming at the top of my lungs with arms flailing frantically, trying to get the driver’s attention and avoid a horrible tragedy. Luckily, the driver noticed me and stopped her car just short of my son and his bike. My exaggerated response was necessary to save his life and was not an overreaction.

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