You rolled your ankle stepping off the curb and are wincing from the pain. When your body hurts, you know how to treat it: with heat, ice, rest… or all of the above. Yet when our emotions become inflamed — like they are now from a constant barrage of upsetting news — the pain keeps compounding without relief. It’s the emotional equivalent of twisting your ankle every day for months on end. Below, experts share how to pinpoint your emotional “reactor type” so you can relieve stress and pave the way to peace.
“Right now, everyone is living in a state of over-reactivity”, says Lise Van Susteren, MD, co-author of Emotional Inflammation (Buy on Amazon, $18.89). Yet most of us don’t realize we’re suffering. This overload shares a few symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder — trouble sleeping, overthinking, hyper-vigilance — but it stems from simply trying to live in today’s tumultuous world.
We all have our own personal response style to stress, called our reactor type, according to Dr. Van Susteren. For example, we might grow anxious, angry, wired, or withdrawn. The key to regaining emotional equilibrium is recognizing that we can tame these self-defeating defense mechanisms.
“We’ve been taught to see stress as something to avoid, so we never develop skills for dealing with it,” explains empathy researcher Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions (Buy on Amazon, $12.29). But once you know a few easy ways to respond to intense emotions, you can also easily manage anxiety.
Just read on to discover how to instantly defuse your reactor type and cue calming peace of mind.
Fearful? You’re a nervous reactor.
Your mind keeps dwelling on worst-case scenarios about the future — though you’re not sure exactly why. The heightened emotional reactivity of your nervous reactor type may in part be rooted in early life stressors, like moving often or experiencing your parents’ divorce. Back then, worry ing helped you problem-solve, but as an adult in a more complex world, you don’t know how to turn off your fears.
When worries hijack your thoughts, focus on relaxing your muscles. “Our body registers emotions before our mind does,” explains Dr. Van Susteren. That’s why folks with this reactor type benefit from taking 20 minutes each day to get out of their head and into their physical body. Just mentally “scan” yourself to see where you’re holding tension, such as in your chest or shoulders. Once you know where you’re carrying stress, take a deep breath, squeeze the tight muscles, then release. Relaxing deep tissue this way calms fear and gives both your mind and body a much-needed mini vacation.
Restless? You’re a revved-up reactor.
Every time you hear a distressing story on the news, you shift into overdrive, wondering how you can help — be it contributing to a fundraiser or pitching in with a volunteer project. Yet it never seems to be enough, as you ask yourself, How can I do more? Are there better ways to help? Self-doubt only dials up the pressure you put on yourself, as your mind continues to reel.
To tame racing thoughts, just press pause for 90 seconds. Research shows that our body is flooded with “high alert” chemicals for a minute following an emotional stressor. But if you can wait out that short-lived surge — by simply counting or singing your favorite song — you’ll emerge with clearer thinking. This trick empowers you to process your reactions before choosing how to proceed. And it works fast, says Dr. Van Susteren. “As the grip of strong feelings gives way to reason, you’ll be able to simply notice your emotions — without getting swept away by them.”
Angry? You’re a molten reactor.
You’re increasingly frustrated by the pressure you’re under at work, and after one more project gets added to your plate, you burst into angry tears. It’s natural to reach a breaking point, even when that last straw is something seemingly small or minor. In fact, there’s a priming effect during “emotional inflammation,” where you become even more sensitive to the next stressor that comes along.
To purge negative energy, just give it a name. Expanding your emotional vocabulary is the first step to feeling in control. Just jot down a “word cloud” of the specific emotions you’re feeling in the present moment, from anger to disappointment. Try to tease out exactly which of the “50 shades of bummer” you’re feeling. “Specific emotions that we’re able to name are easier to accept and respond to than vague, free-floating ones,” Dr. Van Susteren explains. Bonus: Studies show journaling about your feelings this way significantly decreases activity in the brain region responsible for fear, anger, and anxiety.
Withdrawn? You’re a retreating reactor.
The state of the world has you feeling exhausted, and as the weekend rolls around, all you want to do is take a nap and shut out everything. Your tendency to withdraw during times of intense emotion is a way of coping. But if left unchecked, it can lead to depression. Indeed, you feel things so deeply, you’re prone to the multilayered phenomenon called “meta-emotions,” where you have feelings about your feelings. (Think: feeling sad about being depressed.) The soothing solution: “Remind yourself that emotions aren’t the problem”, says McLaren. “They bring us the focus to solve problems.”
To boost your energy, give yourself the right kind of break, like a social media “fast” to help you avoid bad news. This moves you out of a state of rumination and into one of self-care. Also rejuvenating: Consider a hobby, like gardening or stargazing, that allows you to recharge through nature. Interestingly, the best hobbies for your reactor type can be expanded to include others eventually. For example, you might join a community garden or organize a stargazers’ club. This way, you’ll revitalize your spirits while reconnecting with the world.
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This story originally appeared in our print magazine.