Do you ever feel like you have no control over your emotions?
Perhaps you’re afraid your emotional outbursts are ruining your relationships.
If so, you may be experiencing emotional reactivity.
In this article, I will explain what causes emotional reactivity and share five proven hacks that will help you take control of your emotions.
What Is Emotional Reactivity?
Have you ever had a fight with a partner or loved one and found yourself losing control in the face of your emotions?
Maybe you start yelling or crying.
Perhaps you say hurtful things that you don’t really mean.
Maybe you slam doors or throw things.
And all the while, in the back of your mind, you’re aware of a rational part of yourself that knows you’re overreacting, that knows you’re going to regret this.
But that part of you is not running the show right now, and even though you know you should stop, you can’t.
Those moments when your emotions take control of you — instead of the other way round — are moments of emotional reactivity.
It’s the so-called “red mist” — a reaction to a perceived threat by an external source that causes a strong emotional reaction.
This reaction leads us to direct an aggressive verbal and/or physical outburst at the source.
Reactive aggression is different from proactive aggression, which is usually deliberate and callous.
Reactive aggression, on the other hand, involves a momentary loss of your emotion regulation capacity — in short, you lose control.
This temporary loss of control can leave you with feelings of shame and guilt once you have calmed down.
In the extreme, emotional reactivity can lead to harmful acts such as domestic violence or road rage.
What Causes Emotional Reactivity?
Emotional reactivity occurs when we react impulsively when faced with a perceived threat.
Some of the emotions that can trigger emotional reactivity include:
So, why do we react so strongly to those closest to us — particularly in relationships?
Well, it all has to do with the chemistry of our brains.
When you perceive a threat — whether real or not — your body goes into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
This gives you a rush of hormones that prepare your body for action and temporarily disable the part of your brain responsible for regulating your behavior.
This response works wonderfully well if you have to run away from a tiger.
However, it is not particularly helpful when dealing with your loved one who only wants the best for you because you’re going to end up doing something that will hurt them.
Why are some people more emotionally reactive than others?
We all experience emotional reactivity from time to time — it’s part of being human.
However, you might have noticed that some people are more emotionally reactive than others.
Individual differences in emotional reactivity are caused by our unique experiences and temperament.
People who experienced a lot of anger in childhood, such as by having an angry parent, are more likely to model that behavior as adults.
Likewise, people who experienced verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, either as a child or young adult, are likely to have a lot of pent-up rage.
This can often cause them to be emotionally reactive in their adult relationships.
Other factors include gender, culture, and socioeconomic background.
We all experience feelings of anger, rage, and shame but have different ways of expressing them.
While some people tend to be more short-tempered (i.e., emotionally reactive), others are slow burners who take a long time to react — but when they do, they explode.
What Is a Reactive Personality?
People who experience high levels of emotional intensity more frequently than average may be suffering from intermittent explosive disorder, or IED.
This behavioral disorder causes people to have frequent, disproportionate outbursts of anger and rage.
If you think you or someone you know might suffer from IED, please consult your healthcare provider for advice.
Why Is Being Reactive Bad?
The main problem with being emotionally reactive is that you momentarily let your emotions control you — and, in that moment, you act in ways that can damage your relationships.
When you lash out at your partner, for example, it is a subconscious attempt to control the situation and outcomes so that you can feel better.
The problem is, this happens at the cost of the other person’s well-being.
Over time, the damage done by multiple aggressive outbursts can lead to the deterioration of your relationships.
Emotional reactivity is contagious, so a person who is not naturally emotionally reactive may develop it and begin to model this behavior if exposed repeatedly to this type of behavior.
If this happens, it can destroy the relationship.
Emotional reactivity can wreak havoc on every area of your life — from your family and romantic relationships to your work.
In the worst-case scenario, an inability for emotion regulation could cost you your partner, home, family, or job.
Emotional Reactivity Test
If you want to know how emotionally reactive you are, you can take this test.
The Perth emotional reactivity scale (PERS) is a self-report questionnaire that measures:
- Your typical ease of activation
- Your emotional intensity
- The duration of your emotional responses.
The PERS test measures your emotional responses and emotion regulation capabilities for both positive and negative emotions.
Taking the test will give you insight into your levels of emotional reactivity and whether you generally tend to react more positively or negatively.
How Can I Stop Being So Emotionally Reactive? 5 Proven Hacks
If emotional reactivity is ruining your relationships, it’s time to get a handle on it.
These five simple mind-body hacks will help you gain control over your emotions so they can stop controlling you.
#1: Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, has been shown to have a positive impact on people’s reactivity levels.
There are a couple of possible explanations for this.
The first is that meditation and other mindfulness practices help to reduce stress by lowering stress hormones and increasing feel-good hormones, which leads to better mood and lower emotional reactivity.
Another is that training your brain through mindfulness helps you become more present in the moment, which helps you to better manage your emotions.
Being aware of your emotions allows you to consciously choose how to react instead of unconsciously letting them rule you.
#2: Watch What You Eat
A growing body of evidence suggests that your gut health — and particularly the gut bacteria, or flora — influences your mental health, mood, and emotions.
It’s not surprising considering that 95 percent of your serotonin — a feel-good hormone — is produced in the digestive system.
The food you eat not only feeds you but also your gut flora, and depending on what you eat, you can influence the growth of both “good” and “bad” bacteria.
These bacteria influence your mood by influencing your hormone levels.
Research also suggests that supplementing with Omega-3 oil may reduce aggressive behavior and emotional reactivity.
#3: Explore Your Inner World
If you’re emotionally reactive, it’s probably because of experiences in the past that have left you with certain emotional triggers.
It’s important to understand the root of these triggers so you can let go of them and start to build new, healthier emotional habits.
Journaling, therapy, or life coaching are just a few of the avenues you can explore to help you understand and change your subconscious patterns.
Once you have this information, you can start using it in practice.
When something triggers you, take a moment to pause. Ask yourself whether you are really reacting to the situation in front of you or something from your past.
#4: Use Your Awareness
As you cultivate your mindfulness practice, it will start to become easier to pause and notice your reactions.
Use this awareness of your triggers to spot them as they arise and notice the associated emotions.
If possible, take ten deep breaths before responding, and use that time to notice any stories you might be aligning with regarding that trigger.
(If you can do this in another room, away from the object of your anger, even better.)
Acknowledge that you may be acting out old emotional processes and patterns, and try to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Many times, this will help you to curb your emotional outbursts.
#5: Learn the Art of Active Listening
Most of the time, we’re not really listening.
We’re thinking about what we want to say in response to what we think the other person is saying.
But when we slow down and practice active listening, we often discover they’re saying something completely different.
Practicing active listening requires you to flex those mindfulness muscles again and focus your attention on what they’re saying, not what you want to say next.
To make sure you understood correctly, repeat back to them what you believe they said.
They can then confirm or clarify — which can help reduce misunderstandings that often lead to unnecessary emotional outbursts.
How Do You Deal With an Emotionally Reactive Partner?
If your partner is emotionally reactive, the first thing to remember is to keep your cool and not get caught up in their drama.
If you join them in the dance of rage, you’ll only add fuel to the fire and then get dragged into it.
If possible, give them some space to cool off.
If you’re the object of their anger, removing yourself from their physical presence will diffuse some of it.
Try to keep your cool — even if it’s hard — because it will be hard for them to keep raging against your calm composure.
If possible, try to crack a joke or make them smile — it will be almost impossible for them to stay mad.
Once the situation is over, find a calm moment to talk to your partner about their emotional reactivity and how you can solve it together.
I hope these tips help you find peace and harmony in all your relationships and make your life smoother and less turbulent.
Remember to be compassionate to yourself along the way as you work toward this new, less reactive version of yourself.