How To Be Less Emotionally Reactive During Arguments

No, it’s not easy. But these suggestions can help you become more aware of the habit — and help you refocus your anger.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 
Man standing with arms crossed and looking contemplative

Sometimes you don’t know why you started yelling. A mundane conversation about a neighbor’s new car or different types of salads or something pushed your buttons and you snapped and started arguing. It’s certainly not ideal but it happened. Now that the overheated moment has passed, you’re not sure where to start picking up the pieces. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what sparked the conflict. The underlying issue is emotional reactivity, which provides enough kindling for a spark to catch fire practically anytime or anywhere.

Emotional reactivity is a subconscious response often driven by formative memories or traumas. Something in the present touches a nerve frayed by something in the past, then your nervous system overrides your brain’s higher reasoning capabilities. Washington DC-area therapist and author Steven Stosny describes emotional reactivity as an automatic, visceral response to arousal that is almost always unwelcome.

“[Emotional reactivity] is a primitive response that evolved in all mammals to keep us safe,” he says says. “It’s neither necessary nor beneficial to act on it in most situations.” He adds that it creates and perpetuates discord. “Unregulated, it escalates all conflict, as the person you react to reacts to your reaction, and so on.”

So, if you see yourself in the above, what can you do to better understand, identify, and rein in emotional reactivity? We asked therapists and mental health professionals for their thoughts on the matter. From cataloging emotions to memorizing some de-escalation techniques, here’s what may help.

1. Cultivate Emotional Awareness When You Feel Good

When you’re emotionally reactive, your emotions are in charge. Understanding your emotional state lets you exert control over your emotions. For example, if you realize you’re nervous, you can put your nerves in a helpful context, asking why you’re nervous, if there’s a good reason behind it or anything you can do about it. But when you’re under stress and driven to be emotionally reactive, it’s difficult to put a name to what you’re feeling — unless you’re already practiced at it. New York City therapist Amanda Craig recommends starting by recognizing moments of happiness, like playing with your kids or enjoying a meal. “Capturing the positive emotions is a nice way to start this exercise of being emotionally aware.

2. Create A Values-led Framework For Difficult Interactions

Understanding your personal values can help prevent or disrupt emotional reactivity, says relationship expert and Columbia University adjunct professor of counseling psychology Laurel Steinberg. “Develop personal rules or a protocol for yourself that you pay attention to during emotionally charged situations,” she says. “Then you have a framework based on your personal values for ideals to strive for when having difficult, emotionally-charged discussions.” When you make treating people respectfully a clearly defined personal value, Steinberg says you can create and abide by guidelines like Listen first, think second, respond third. Or only speak at a volume you’ll be proud of later.

3. Respond To The Person, Not The Situation

Focusing on the underlying humanity of a conflict can help pull you out of a reactive tailspin. “Remind yourself that you are interacting with a person who has feelings,” Steinberg says. Sure, you may be annoyed at what someone is saying but they still deserve your respect and consideration. “This,” she says, “means having calm, organized conversations to which you come with suggestions for solutions, along with the ability to manage and cope with your own distress and disappointment.”

4. Prepare Some Conflict Softening Phrases in Advance

Having a list of tension-defusing phrases at the ready can keep your mind a step ahead of emotional reactions, notes Craig. Our brains can easily be overwhelmed by stress. If you’re worried you might start shouting or saying mean things, a go-to phrase like “thanks for telling me that” or “I appreciate what you’re sharing with me” can really help. “I can take a breath, I can say my phrase, which gives me some space to go process my feelings,” Craig says.

5. Take a Deep Breath

In moments of conflict, your sympathetic nervous system takes over as quarterback and runs its favorite play: the fight or flight response. Your body tenses, your heart rate elevates, your breath gets quicker and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood your body. It’s hard to slam the brakes on that careening emotional locomotive. Nevertheless, as Craig notes, simply taking a deep breath during moments of emotional stress can help start to nudge you back on track. “First, it buys you three seconds,” Craig says. But also it moves oxygen through your bloodstream, which is calming for your system.”

6. Do Some “Emotional Pushups”

Think of overcoming emotional reactivity like getting in shape. It’s not going to happen overnight. However, steady, dedicated effort can yield impressive results. Stosny recommends a self assessment technique he calls “emotional pushups” Make a list of times you were emotionally reactive. Pay attention to the changes in your body as you think about each item on your list and try to understand the other person’s perspective.“You don’t have to agree with [the other person’s perspective],” Stosny says. “But you need to understand it.”

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