WHAT IS OVERREACTING?
We see overreaction en masse – for example if there is any mention in the press, or social media of even possible shortages of certain foods – you will see shoppers with trollies laden with the goods – do they REALLY need so many tubs, packets, whatever? Maybe it’s an old mass default setting set generations ago, a reaction to possible famine. I wonder how such people would have managed during the war with their ration books severely curtailing their ability to buy even what are basic essentials – sugar, butter, meat!
When anyone speaks of adults who exhibit inappropriate ‘for their age and the circumstances’ behaviour, ie overreacting, my thoughts immediately return to the school staff room that I have mentioned before. I well remember the feelings generated by a teacher throwing a complete hissy fit, screaming, crying, foot stamping over a trivial matter. Things simply hadn’t gone her way. The rest of the staff simply ignored her, but I, as a visitor witnessing her melt down for the first time, found it hard to ignore. Her behaviour was much more fitted to a school playground, and a primary one at that, rather than a school staff room. I did wonder how she would (over)react to anything more dramatic happening in her life.
There will be times when a strong reaction happens in response to a situation which justifiably made you angry or upset. No problem, in fact, keeping in such emotions would probably have more negative consequences than letting them out.
However, with an overreaction, there is a reaction, usually emotional, which is out of proportion to the situation that was the apparent trigger. What life had thrown your way. It is more intense, and often longer lasting than a ‘regular reaction’. The overreaction can be very obvious if it is externalised, including screaming, shouting, crying, wailing, ranting that goes on, seemingly with the thought of regaining control a difficult concept for the reactor or anyone around. If internal, the reaction is probably not obvious to the majority of people as in the overreactor going off in a huff if not getting what was wanted, not getting their way; or fizzing internally bemoaning ‘why me?’ ‘why do bad things always happen to me?’
Whichever, overreaction usually presents as an inappropriate way of coping, probably more typical of the reaction of a child rather than a mature adult. Either way, if this happens in front of others, the reactor frequently appears so focused on themselves that they are unaware of how it is affecting those around them. On later reflection though, their self-esteem can suffer with the realisation of what a spectacle they must have made. However, by learning – and putting into use – different, more age appropriate ways of responding, the behaviour can be altered and overreactions prevented from taking over.
SO, DO YOU OVERREACT?
Dr J.P. Siegel in her book ‘Stop Overreacting’ suggests answering ‘yes’ to the following questions could indicate overreaction – 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?
Stress can be a cause of overreacting, but the overreaction does nothing to downgrade the stress, often, rather escalating it further – and for the observers too! Life rarely runs smoothly for any of us, no point in bemoaning your fate – life can be tough, so don’t run to comparing your lot with that of others, especially as you usually have no idea of how much paddling is going on under someone else’s water.
It is felt that if severe stress was suffered during childhood, then, as an adult, the ability to handle stressful situations can be difficult, leading to overreactions due to stress hormone (especially cortisol and adrenaline) production being affected. There will be disproportionate anger, frustration for minor issues such as not being able to find something. The flight or fight response kicks in for minor happenings. There may also be displays of displacement activity – basically taking something out on an inanimate object, nothing to do with causing the angst! How well I recall seeing someone kicking seven bells out of a car tyre when they had been told that they would have to go to the shop as their partner was busy with the children.
So, again, the question of what would this person do, how would they react if confronted with an actual majorly stressful event? Chances are, they would be unable to cope, be overwhelmed, maybe go into shutdown mode.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP?
There are ways to prevent flying off the handle. If you learn these and practise them it will help you - and family and friends too! As I say to clients when working on any techniques, the practise in times of low stress is important in order to be able to use the techniques when really needed. Compare with driving – you don’t have just one lesson, an hour behind the wheel, before launching yourself off onto the motorway. As with driving, you need to practise in order for the skills to become second nature to you, learning to respond in a controlled way rather than (over)react.
· Learn to ‘listen’ to your body and identify those first feelings of beginning to lose control. Be aware of changes taking place in your body, of things beginning to whizz in your head, a tightening of muscles, a feeling of wanting to lash out or run away. This self-awareness is key to maintaining control. Acknowledge the feelings – both mental and physical – but in a considered way that doesn’t set in place a magnification and escalation. Acknowledge what is causing them rather than pushing them away and tell yourself that you can retain control.
· Put the event into perspective – a true perspective. Nobody’s life is at risk, the world as you know it is not about to grind to a halt. Don’t wait until control has been lost, as it then becomes an uphill struggle to regain it. Only you are responsible for your feelings – you cannot blame others for how you react…..a reaction is often due to disappointment - don’t allow yourself to slip into victim mode because of something someone has said, done or not done. How do you think other people saw your overreaction? As the well know saying goes – shit happens, just …. breathe.
· In many stress related incidents, our breathing goes haywire. First thing to do – focus on your breathing, control the intake and output of air. Don’t resort to either shallow breaths or periods of breath holding. Use good, deep breaths using your diaphragm and actively thinking about your breath flowing in, your breath flowing out. It is a two pronged attack to the problem – it focuses your attention on something that you can control as well as oxygenating your body to enable optimum functioning and a quietening of emotions. Breathing is very much taken for granted, be it good or bad – so you will probably have to work on this strategy.
· Become aware of your triggers – if there are certain people who say or do things that wind you up. If there are certain situations that you know you don’t handle very well, identify them. This can be an area that responds well to talking through in therapy to help understand the who, what, why’s of your triggers. If you are prepared for them, you are aware that your buttons may be pushed; you are in a better position to learn to respond in a positive way rather than overreact in a negative one. There may be some who actually enjoy lighting your blue touch paper and standing back awaiting your explosion, whilst there are others who are unknowing in the part they play, especially if your overreaction is delayed or cumulative. Remember the old scout moto and be prepared.
Maybe it’s tiredness, hunger that makes you more liable to overreact. If so, be aware that you may overreact and thereby be in a position to diffuse the triggers, or turn and walk away rather than stomp away in a negative way. Some people’s overreactions occur when jealousy, envy, unreal expectations, self-centredness, feelings of a lack of appreciation are around for them. Check out your expectations and ensure that they are realistic. Life often has hiccups along the way and we have to be able to take these in our stride.
· Some people just seem to wake up convinced that it is going to be a bad day – they just know it, so it is liable to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It may have happened once, so it is always going to be this way. Counteract that negativity with positive self-messages, positive affirmations. Neuroscience tells us that you can replace the negative with the positive, but you have to want to and you have to put in a bit of effort rather than wallow in negativity. You have the choice.
· Divert yourself and your feelings – maybe get out into the fresh air, or put on some music and belt out a song. Better have people cringe at your bad singing than at inappropriate behaviour! You are letting those feelings out still, but you are channelling them in a more appropriate way. If you are still upset, go for a walk – stride out in order to get those happy hormones working for you. Maybe take the time to give yourself a pat on the back for not having overreacted, for having changed how things would have gone in the past. You took control. Well done you.
IS CHANGE POSSIBLE?
Yes. Whilst you cannot change what may have originally caused you to begin the pattern of overreacting; how other people behave; life happenings that are out of your control; you certainly can change how you cope with things when they don’t go the way that you wanted or feel that they ‘should’ have gone. For whatever reason, it is likely that your overreacting brought the attention you required when you were younger. Attention that can be sought in different, much more appropriate ways as an adult.
Ask someone you trust, who was maybe present at one of your ‘overreactions’ how they saw this and how they feel that you handled the situation from an emotional stand-point. Listen to what they say, even though it may not be what you want to hear as it will be like holding a mirror up to your behaviour that you probably don’t want to accept takes place.
As overreacting can happen at times of stress, so endeavour to keep stress at manageable levels (before) and if you have strategies – use them! It’s a bit like an advert on the television for Sensodyne toothpaste where a dentist explains that she has people coming to her to say that the sensitivity has returned. When asked if they are still using the toothpaste, they say no, because the sensitivity stopped! Solution – simple – keep using the toothpaste. Same with anti-stress strategies. If you have them, use them! Do yoga, Mindfulness, meditate. Find what works for you and use it.
Remember that your overreaction can easily cause embarrassment to those around you as well as to yourself (if you later reflect back on how you were). Ensure that self-care is high on your agenda in order to endeavour to eliminate the possibility of tiredness, hunger, stress levels being the causes of your overreaction. Tune in to your body and learn to listen to what it is telling you. Learn to put on a positive spin and not over-negatively-generalise eg if not included in something on one occasion, reflect back to the occasions that you were included rather than resort to ‘I am never included, but I include them’ scenario ie don’t resort to the all or nothing in life – accentuate your positives and remember you are flawsome!
I will shortly be opening a new section on my web site - one in which downloads of recordings will be available - either simply for relaxation, or for therapeutic help/support. In addition to this, there will be affirmations available which will be in both written and spoken form. Watch this space!