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Overreacting or just reacting? 8 tips for managing emotions

Have you ever been told you're overreacting or do you often find yourself thinking "I'm just too sensitive?" What if I told you that there is no such thing? That overreacting is just a word in the dictionary. Google defines overreacting as "respond more emotionally or forcibly than is justified". Well, who is Google to tell you whether your reaction is justified or not!

The word overreacting or label of ‘overly sensitive’ implies a comparison with something or someone, a frame of reference on which the estimation is based. Comparing yourself to another and how they react to a situation is unhelpful at best. There are too many variables, too many individual differences for it to be a reliable comparison. How we respond to situations or manage our emotions is hugely influenced by our personal histories. No two people have identical personal histories and even if you have experienced similar things in your life as someone else, you have your own unique perception of those things. 

One way we learn how to manage emotions and react to situations is through observing those close to us, typically a parent or caregiver. If you observed ‘big’ reactions to emotions or situations when you were younger you may be more likely to react in a similar way. Equally if your example of how to manage emotions was to bottle them up and not express them you may do the same.

In addition, if we react in a way that our parents disapprove of, we quickly learn to moderate this behaviour but this may be in conflict with our true selves and what feels right for us. This can often lead us to tell ourselves that our reaction is wrong in some way. However, if this reaction is instinctual, the subconscious message is that you can’t trust yourself and your feelings. 

When you tell yourself that your reaction isn’t justified, you invalidate your experience and you deny yourself your right to feel all of what you need to. All too often I hear counselling clients say to me “I should be able to cope” or “I shouldn’t feel like this”.

I’m always curious about the shoulds and should nots because they’re often the voice of someone else. It may be a critical parent, a partner or societal expectations that have influenced your perception of how you think you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be, feel and react. So, if you notice that 'should' or 'should not' creep into your internal dialogue, tell it to do one, you don’t need it! 

Now it’s not to say that if you want to change how you react emotionally, that this wouldn’t be helpful but I’d urge you to consider why you want to make the change. Is it because you’ve been labelled too sensitive or is it because you feel you could personally benefit from managing them differently?

For example, you may be quick to anger and feel overwhelmed by these feelings, they may be getting in the way of having healthy relationships or staying in employment. Learning to harness that anger can be productive but it’s telling you something so it’s important to listen to it as well. 

It is possible to learn how to manage our emotions differently and to be more accepting of them.

Man writing

Eight tips for managing emotions

1. Give yourself permission to feel all of your emotions

It's common to try to avoid the more difficult emotions, or we may have been taught that some emotions are not ok such as anger. Every emotion is valid and allowing yourself to feel them is so important for a positive sense of well-being. It also prevents them building up to the point where they feel so overwhelming, they burst out.

2. Make your internal dialogue more compassionate

You can do this by using validating statements such as ‘I am feeling very sad’, ‘I do feel angry’, ‘I’m allowed to feel this way’.

3. Try journaling when you notice your emotions feel overwhelming

There is no right or wrong way to do this. You can write paragraphs, just words, draw, scribble - whatever feels natural. The act of writing feelings down can be helpful in releasing them or at least lessening their intensity so they feel more manageable

4. Ask yourself why are these emotions so big?

Be curious without judgement. This will help you understand what is fuelling the emotion and this understanding can help you to be more accepting of your emotions.

5. Check in with yourself regularly both physically and emotionally

Notice if you feel tension in your body or if you’re feeling tired. Ask yourself how am I feeling today? Practising mindfulness can be helpful in doing this, as you pay attention to the here and now.  

6. Ask yourself what am I reacting to?

Is it this situation or is it the past playing out in the present? Sometimes situations can trigger emotions that feel disproportionate to the moment. The situation may remind you of a difficult past experience so the emotions you are feeling are linked to not only the present moment but the past as well.

7. Identify some positive statements you can say to yourself when your emotions begin to feel overwhelming

For example, ‘I can cope with these feelings’, ‘it’s ok for me to feel this much’, ‘these feelings will pass’.

8. Practice regular self-care

This can help you to connect with yourself and recognise if your emotions are starting to feel too much. Depending on what you do for self-care, it can also be a great way to release or express emotions.

Our emotions tell a story. When we feel they are out of control, they become something to fear, when in fact they are a natural part of being human. Learning to accept what is in all its forms can be empowering and liberating, and ultimately allow us to lead more content lives.  

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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York, North Yorkshire, YO30

Written by Roberta King

York, North Yorkshire, YO30

I am a qualified person-centred counsellor and a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

I work from a lovely room in York and have several years of experience supporting people to make positive changes in their lives with a specialist knowledge of helping those struggling with addiction.

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