There are times when we feel perfectly in control of our emotional and behavioral responses. We might be standing in a long, long line at a grocery store, for example, feeling impatient and frustrated as it crawls along, yet we might also find space to breathe and remind ourselves that there’s nothing to do but wait, and that’s okay. Or we may hear some disappointing news, but then are able to acknowledge that although our situation is unpleasant, we can still find a way to validate and soothe ourselves, feeling a sense of hope that things will be okay. In these moments, we can regulate our emotions.
However, we are not always able to move through life with ease and respond to difficulties in the ways that we would ideally like. There are times when we are just not able to have a kind of spacious and accepting attitude that leaves us feeling ultimately in control. It could be a circumstance related to work, school, being alone, being with others, failing, making a mistake, being creative, etc. We might have a pattern that begins with a certain experience and then ignites anxiety, anger, frustration, fear, hopelessness, or self-hatred. And it might feel like we have no control in those moments to experience anything different. Our emotional dysregulation could seem to have a life of its own.
When we feel stuck in a pattern of reactivity, we can first understand that there is no inherent law in life that says we must respond this way or that way to any situation. We may have developed a way of reacting based on experiences from our past, but it does not mean that those reactions are set in stone and forever cemented as who we are.
If, for example, whenever we try to apply for a new job, we are flooded with anxiety and fear, this response is likely conditioned within us due to our past, and perhaps for very good reason. Perhaps we grew up in an environment where we were judged harshly, and as a strategy to avoid rejection, we hid ourselves from ever being able to be criticized. Further, we held a deep belief that without censoring ourselves, we would be rejected. This anticipation of rejection could have saved us a lot of strife as a child, however, it could now very well be getting in our way of moving forward in life.
Or, say we find ourselves deeply challenged when expressing ourselves authentically – this could mean speaking up in a crowd, doing something creative and sharing it with other people, expressing an opinion, or asking for what we want. Whenever we have an opportunity to share something uniquely related to ourselves or our inner experience, we may feel completely barricaded in fear, anxiety, or tension. Again, this mechanism of inner restraint could have been something highly adaptive in an environment where our caregivers were disdainful or contemptuous, however later in life it could very well put a damper on us ever really feeling like we have the right to interact fully with the world around us.
When we notice these moments of reactivity, how do we engage with and reduce them?
One practice that has been shown to demonstrate a reduction in emotional reactivity, specifically in the part of our brain that processes threats and fear, is meditation. In one study, after only 6 weeks of mindfulness training and practice in cultivating awareness and compassion, participants demonstrated “less emotional unrest toward negative stimuli” and less anxiety compared to a group that practiced just relaxation.
This means that by practicing paying attention to your environment and body sensations, along with developing kindness towards yourself and others, you can lower reactivity in the presence of negative stimuli. This does not mean that difficulty will vanish in your life if you practice meditation, but rather you will be left with more of a choice of how to respond. The less reactive internally we are, the more space there is to choose how we would ideally like to show up in each situation.
Working with a therapist is another resource for you to help change the way you respond to difficult situations. It is absolutely possible to slow down the moments that give us the most grief, pull apart all the components that create that experience for us, and identify the cause of our reactivity. Working with a therapist can help by being able to walk through some of these difficult moments with a nonjudgmental and compassionate witness, and to cultivate new ways of experiencing the same situation.
All of these reactive moments are possible to change – there are resources out there to slow down and lessen reactivity. When we have perspective, understanding, spaciousness, and compassion, we have a better chance at choosing how we want to respond rather than being caught in our usual patterns of behaving and thinking.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
- To schedule an appointment with Nina, click here!