Stress-Proof Your Brain: How to Avoid Overreacting

Let go of your fly-off-the-handle ways in five steps.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

Pradeep Ranjan/unsplash
Source: Pradeep Ranjan/unsplash

Do you ever replay situations where stress gets the best of you? You silently cringe because know you’re better than lashing out, raising your voice and picking a fight when tensions run high. Yet you defaulted to the same over-the-top reactions, nonetheless. When a situation does not warrant emotional intensity, you are overreacting.

It’s easy to act rationally when you’re not exposed to a triggering event. Or, as I joke with my clients, everything makes sense in the safety and serenity of a therapy office. What we do the rest of the time matters most.

Whether you possess an oversensitive-to-threat nervous system or you were raised by Fly-off-the-handle Harry and Stressed-out Sara, the key to calming down lies with mindful attention to what's happening in your brain.

Because our brain’s number one job is to stay alive, we are hardwired for survival. Thirty-thousand years ago this meant living another day or being hunted by predators. Sadly, our physiology has not evolved with the changing of the times. Modern day, we rarely require the adrenaline rush of the fight-flight response because our existence is under threat. This response triggers emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.

If you struggle with Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD), or a history of abusive relationships, the primitive part of your brain is on high alert for danger. In order to decide what is safe or not, your brain constantly scans your surroundings and catalogs past events and assesses the future. The problem is when your mind tricks you into believing you are in imminent danger. Caveat: If a contentious co-parent or familial ties dictate you must interact with a physically or psychologically unsafe person, extra attention is required to quiet your central nervous system.

The following steps can help you cultivate stress-hardiness:

1. Check your cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are automatic thinking patterns that cause a distorted view of reality. Possessing a negative or highly self-critical constitution means you default to worst-case scenarios and outcomes that may not be aligned with reality. It’s easy to confuse thoughts with reality, but thinking something does not make it true. And feelings are not facts. Get in the habit of putting your thoughts on trial by looking for proof that your arguments are true or false. Also, challenge your initial reaction with alternative versions of events.

2. Recognize pre-emptive worrying. This anxiety-provoking habit typically forms in childhood in reaction to a stressful upcoming event. Resembling a form of psychological self-flagellation, you worry yourself sick in order to ward off the Catastrophe Gods. Because the story in your head didn’t end up as bad as you imagined, you mistakenly believe that this ritual of obsessive worrying worked and you repeat it ad nauseam.

3. Identify your trigger events. Think people, situations and uncomfortable emotions that typically set you off. For example, if you’re hypersensitive to criticism you may automatically assume others intentionally try and hurt you. When you pause before reacting, you may notice you react defensively instead of taking in what the other person is communicating.

4. Visualize what emotional regulation looks like. You can rewire your brain to respond with intention rather than react with impulsivity. Close your eyes and picture feeling confident and composed when addressing conflict. Make sure to incorporate slow, deep breathing to calm your central nervous system. Possessing psychological insight (AKA self-awareness) is the cornerstone of social and emotional intelligence, and the key to developing healthy interpersonal relationships. It's about getting in touch with what's going on inside you and around you. Self-awareness also means being attuned to what others say, and what their body language reveals.

5. Make lifestyle changes that emphasize mental and physical wellness. If I had to choose a universal intervention with my psychotherapy clients it would be to make sleep a priority. Additionally, a sensible diet, exercise and yoga, and drinking plenty of water go a long way toward feeling and behaving better. Connecting with friends and loved ones provides an emotional safety net, as well.

We all succumb to overreacting at times. However, if people accuse you of flying off the handle or taking your frustrations out on others, it may be time to rethink your stress response.