Are you emotionally exhausted by the end of the day?
Do you obsess over whether other people are upset with you?
Have you ever said that you just feel things too deeply?
If so, you’re emotionally reactive.
When you are emotionally reactive, you have intense reactions to non-emergency stimuli. It’s the inability to manage your mental and emotional reactions to external circumstances. Before I discovered coaching, I was totally emotionally reactive. Any little thing going wrong set off my sighing, eye-rolling, frustration, and exasperation.
Emotional reactivity is caused by an out-of-control brain. You’re likely to catastrophize, take things personally, and always see the worst—which creates an enormous amount of emotional stress and suffering for you.
Emotional reactivity displays itself in various ways. Some people default to anger—yelling, acting aggressively, or lashing out—while other people default to sadness, anxiety, panic, or fear. Regardless of how you display it, emotional reactivity is what happens when you don’t manage your mind, and you just act on your unconscious thoughts and lash out at others or inwards at yourself. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and you can’t find the off switch.
The other problem with emotional reactivity is that it makes it impossible for you to refill your emotional tank. When you are emotionally reactive, you end up always scraping the bottom of the emotional barrel. It’s kind of like driving a car where the fuel gauge is always on empty. So even little things can produce big emotional responses and dramatic meltdowns. You’re unable to cope with the normal events of life, and then if something extra-challenging happens, you’re totally f*cked.
Sounds exhausting, right?
Here’s your other option.
The opposite of being emotionally reactive is being emotionally resilient. Emotional resilience is the ability to spring back to your normal state after a stimulus produces a thought and a feeling in response. It’s the ability to maintain an even emotional keel and process emotions appropriately without being derailed by your thoughts or feelings.
Studies show that people with better emotional resilience do better in school, succeed more in their careers, are less likely to use or abuse drugs or alcohol, and have lower mortality and better physical health. Emotional resilience literally makes you more physically healthy.
So how can you develop emotional resilience? You can develop it in two ways: by processing your feelings, and by changing your thoughts.
Processing your feelings means staying in your body while the feeling moves through you. I suggest describing the feeling to yourself as physical sensations. It’s hot or cold, fast or slow, big or small, tight or loose, up or down. Where in the body is it? Describe it in physical sensations.
Doing this distracts your brain from its thoughts and reminds you that all that’s happening is a physical sensation, not an emergency. A headache or a menstrual cramp isn’t a crisis, and neither is a feeling.
Second, you must manage your mind to create emotional resilience. The reason you’re emotionally fragile and all over the place is you don’t have any control of your brain. It’s running wild and creating horrible scenarios to scare you, like telling you everyone hates you, you’re worthless, and going to die alone. Your brain is like a toddler with a knife—or like a German Shepherd puppy who hasn’t gotten enough exercise. It isn’t trying to make a mess, but there’s going to be at least a ruined house, and possibly a fatal wound, if you don’t take charge of what it’s doing.
When you don’t exercise any control over your brain, you have no resilience and are subject to its every random and destructive whim. When you learn to manage your mind, you stop being so reactive.
At first the practice will be painstaking—you have to pay attention to a lot of thoughts and practice noticing and shifting them. Over time, as you keep managing your mind, you will become less and less reactive. There will be a longer and longer space between the stimulus and your response, and you’ll develop the ability to choose how you want to respond consciously.
That space and ability to choose is what creates the opportunity to develop emotional resilience. When you are emotionally reactive, you can’t control your reactions, and they feel like they happen instantaneously. But they are caused by thoughts. The better you get at noticing and changing your thoughts, the less reactive you will be overall. Eventually you’ll develop emotional resiliency, and you’ll find you can get through the day in that calm state of flow that sounds impossible to you today.