How To Stop Overreacting (And Keep Your Cool Instead)

The stress of life gets to all of us at times, and unfortunately we don’t always do a perfect job of keeping our cool. Dr. Julie Hanks offers some strategies to help us stop overreacting even when under pressure.

March 23, 2016
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Have you ever cried at something small and insignificant? Lost your temper and yelled at a friend? Cursed someone who cut you off in traffic? Most of us have. The truth is that it’s human nature to overreact (even if we don’t particularly like to admit that we do it). The hard part is catching ourselves before we have an outburst or say something we regret later. Here are some strategies to help you keep your cool under pressure and not overreact.

The first step is to take care of your basic needs. We’re more prone to lash out or have a (mini) emotional breakdown if we’re hungry, tired, or stressed out. Women especially sometimes neglect themselves and ignore their own needs when taking care of others. But it’s not self-indulgent to take time for yourself, it’s smart! Make yourself a priority and take some time regularly to reenergize and rejuvenate your most valuable resource—you! By doing so, you’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll overreact to upsetting situations.

If you find yourself on the verge of reacting or responding to something or someone in a way that’s overly dramatic, another thing you can do is tune in to your feeling and name it. For example, if your partner is giving you feedback that is really hard to hear, acknowledge your feelings and give them a name. Saying to yourself, “this is painful” or “I’m getting defensive,” can help you manage those difficult feelings and stay in the moment instead of losing control and letting your emotions get the better of you. 

And of course, the tried-and-true strategy of taking a deep breath can prove very useful. It sounds simple, but it really works! When we overreact we’re experiencing a remnant of the primal fight-or-flight response; breathing can calm our nervous system and help us remain levelheaded in the moment. For example, if a crazy driver on the highway has you seething with anger, audibly breathe in and out then let the moment pass; it’s not worth getting all worked up about it. Taking a deep breath can help you respond more clearly and productively.

Finally, one of my favorite ways to keep a stressful experience from getting out of hand is to cognitively reframe it. That’s just a fancy therapy term that means telling yourself a story to put a positive (or at least neutral) spin on things. Say, for instance, that you find out you weren’t invited to an outing that a group of your friends went on. It can be tempting to get upset and assume that they intentionally left you out to hurt your feelings. A better approach would be to give them the benefit of the doubt and create a story in your mind that makes things seem more reasonable and understandable: Maybe they threw it together at the last minute, maybe they thought you were busy, or maybe they made a mistake (like we all do) and just straight up forgot to ask you. Either way, creating an alternate story or context to help ease the blow of a painful or stressful situation can help us rewire our thinking so that we don’t freak out.

We all are pushed to our emotional limits at times. Our careers, our finances, and certainly our relationships can test our ability to cope and endure hard things. When you find yourself experiencing something difficult, I encourage you to acknowledge and identify your feelings and bodily sensations, keep your breathing steady, and consider reframing the context of what happened so that you can stay in control.

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