Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

5 Causes of Emotional Explosions

Stopping explosive behavior is about first aid, prevention, and problem-solving.

Source: pixabay

Most people would say that Jake is a laid-back guy, even his partner, Carol. And he is… usually. But every once in a while, he just blows up. Sometimes it's about something small – Carol leaving her clothes on the bedroom floor, or something about her tone of voice — but Jake goes ballistic. Or he suddenly seems to go on a rant, spewing a list of gripes that he has seemingly been sitting on for a while. His angry mood may last hours, or days, but he eventually settles down, usually mumbles some apology and Jake goes back to being…old Jake.

Undoubtedly, you've met people like Jake who periodically spiral out of control. Here are the most common causes of these emotional explosions:

Stress. Jake's default really is to be laid-back, but under enough stress — deadlines at work, health or family worries — his coping abilities wear thin, and it takes less to push him emotionally over the edge.

Depression. Or it's not just stress but underlying depression. It may be situational when Jake feels trapped; it may be genetic where he is wired for depression. But regardless of the source, for some, depression isn't the low energy, lay-in-bed kind, but an agitated version. While those same why-bother, it-doesn't-matter, pessimistic thoughts driving his mood, what comes to the surface is irritability.

Relationships are out of balance. Jake may be falling into a martyr role, at home with Carol, and maybe at his job, where he does a lot of the heavy lifting, is bothered by it, but sucks it up hoping others will eventually step up or appreciate him more. Most often, others don't. They think the other guy is doing what they are doing because they take them at face value: They don't complain, so they seem like they are doing what they are doing because they want to. The explosions happen because the martyr's resentment about things being unfair, like a pressure cooker, builds up, and he blows. Or Jake is not the martyr but feels more like the victim. He feels always one-down, or that Carol is micromanaging or critical, but again he puts up with it until he once again gets fed up and blows up.

Difficulty with transitions. Jake may be a person who has a difficult time with transitions. What this means is that he tends to be a planner, knows way in advance what he wants to do, and God forbid his plans get derailed for some reason. It may be what he wants to do on Saturday outside but it rains, it may be how he expects a dinner party to go with friends, but the dinner burns or folks cancel at the last minute and he loses it.

This is about anxiety and Jake tries to control his anxiety by his planning and choreographing. When things suddenly change, he gets rattled and his anxiety bubbles to the top, but what he expresses and what others see his anger.

Bullying behavior. This is probably not Jake, but there are those who blow up as an intimidation tool. This is getting what they want, and getting others to do what they want them to do. It is about power and entitlement.

But even for some seeming bullies, the underlying driver isn't power but hypervigilance, as always being on guard, ready to spring and fight is generally learned in childhood as a way of coping with trauma. Again, what others see is not the underlying anxiety but the control and anger.

What to do

If you are a person who blows up or if you are living with someone who does, there are three parts to dealing with the problem:

First aid. If you quickly blow up, the emotional first-aid is never about resolving the problem that you're ruminating about, but settling your emotional state. You need to calm yourself down, leave the situation to sidestep your instincts to get this off your chest or solve the problem now. This is about self-regulation and responsibility.

If you are on the receiving end of someone's blow-up, you want to not feed the fire by getting angry yourself, but instead remaining calm. But if that doesn't work, if the other person is threatening to become violent, get away.

Prevention. People who go from 0-to-60 quickly often don't realize when stress and resentment are building up. If you are like this, you want to track your emotions — checking in with yourself periodically throughout the day and asking yourself how you are feeling, so you can do something to calm yourself down before your emotions get to too high, like going for a walk, writing down how you are feeling, taking a deep breath, going for a run, or doing meditation.

You also want to build in prevention by stepping back and owning that you have a problem with anger. Angry people tend to blame the situation or others for making them angry. This is irresponsible. You are in charge of controlling your emotions. Get therapy, take medication, or develop the skills you need to lower your overall emotional state.

Solve the underlying problems. Here Jake talks to Carol about her micromanaging or his doing the heavy lifting to rebalance the relationship. Or he takes steps to deal with his underlying depression or anxiety so he is not irritable or controlling.

And if Jake does tend to ramp up, calm down, and then sweep things under the rug, it's time for Carol to step up and talk about these underlying issues. Jake's apology is important but it's not enough. Carol needs to be assertive in saying to Jake that he needs to work on his anger, or she needs to ask about what she can do to help when he gets rattled by transitions or to counter his built-up resentments.

Like most problems, emotional explosions are not the problem but the symptom of other underlying issues. Fix the underlying issues.