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We’ve probably all been there. We hear some news or are on the receiving end of some tough information, and we find ourselves overflowing with a big reaction. Before long, someone tells us that we’re overreacting and need to calm down, which basically only ever makes things worse.

The idea of overreacting is interesting to me. Sometimes, (probably most of the time), our reactions are totally normal and proportionate to the events at hand. Yet, oftentimes we still get told we’re overreacting, which is extremely frustrating and maybe a blog post for another time. What I want to take a look at in this post is those times when we actually do feel we’ve overreacted; when our response really did feel disproportionate for whatever was actually happening in the present.

What is happening when we overreact?

We know that our emotions are a good thing. They are purposeful and helpful, signaling to us when things are okay and when they aren’t, and offering us a kind of guide map, if we learn to pay attention to them, for how to move forward in a situation. But, sometimes our emotions feel bigger than they need to be. This can be surprising to ourselves and those around us, with their force or intensity. Why does that happen?

Now there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, but I do think there are some patterns to be noticed about when and why we tend to overreact.

The basics

For starters, when we are not functioning at our best, our emotional threshold and regulation capabilities aren’t going to be as efficient. If you haven’t slept well or you don’t feel good or you haven’t eaten in a while, you’re operating with a shorter fuse, so to speak. Your energy resources are depleted and you’re likely to be less prepared to receive and respond to any information. Your emotional regulation might be off, so you end up yelling or sobbing and you might not even be sure as to why.

Emotional overload

Another easy way to find yourself overreacting is if you are already carrying heavy emotions. For example, if you’ve been yelled out and disrespected by your boss all day, you’re probably already feeling irritated. And then you get home and find out your kid didn’t wash the dishes from the night before. Granted, that would be frustrating. However, after a great day at work, your response might feel more reasonable. After such a rough day at work, the irritation that was already building might just bubble over, resulting in a reaction consisting of far more emotions than just frustration about the dishes.

Trigger points

One last reason that I think we often overreact is when we are receiving information that touches a nerve, or a soft spot for you. We all have our own history, with tons of context that is constantly influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we are in a scenario in which we are somehow reminded of that context, we might be reacting to much more than just the scenario at hand.

Let’s say, as an example, that you are at a routine doctor’s appointment and the doctor says he wants to run an additional test to rule out something more serious. The reality of the situation might be that additional tests are routine, that the doctor isn’t worried at all but has to follow protocol, that you’re not in any danger; and if you and all your loved ones have led long, healthy lives, that might be exactly how you interpret the situation. You might be a little nervous or anxious, but otherwise pretty nonplussed. But, if you’ve recently lost a parent to cancer or had a loved one recently diagnosed with a rare disease, your anxiety could skyrocket, you could find yourself sobbing, or on the edge of a panic attack.

I feel that those reactions that touch on trigger points are the most confusing, because oftentimes we don’t even realize in the moment why we are reacting so strongly. We might not even be aware of what our context is, so our reaction might not make sense to us at all. If we can take a step back and check in with ourselves, we might be able to hone in on what it was that triggered us, as well as what in our own history might make us extra sensitive to that topic or situation.

Once we understand that context, we can understand why we reacted in the way that we did. With context, that reaction really doesn’t seem like an overreaction at all. It may seem disproportionate to the event at hand, but is likely pretty proportionate to whatever else we’re carrying around with us.

If you’re interested in learning more about your own reactions and all that may be contributing to them, give us a call. We’d love to explore this with you!

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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