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Your partner left their sweaty gym clothes on the floor. Again.
Your mom is on ask 10,265 of why you’re still single.
Your boss just gave you a bunch of deliverables — and they’re due tomorrow.
You? You’re annoyed! Beyond annoyed. Fired up! You might wish you could channel your inner Dalai Lama and react like a cool cuke, but instead you have an emotional outburst.
If you can relate, there’s an actual clinical term for expressing big, out-of-proportion feelings when stressed, angry, or sad: emotional reactivity. It’s a fancy way of saying someone has trouble regulating their emotions.
“Emotional reactivity generally refers to the sensitivity, intensity, and duration of emotional responses,” says Heather Fraser, LCSW, a therapist based in Chicago. “The emotional reaction can seem out of proportion to the situation and can be quick and intense or can last for a long period of time.”
If this is your default, it could be seriously damaging your relationships. Don’t get us wrong: We love emotions. Downright champion them. But when your impulse to even small slights is to explode, you may need some outside help. As with nearly everything in life—aside, perhaps, from our collective T. Swift/T. Kelce obsession—therapy can offer relief.
Therapists are pros at teaching people how to be less of a dynamite stick. There are several types of therapy that work, all of which are accessible through virtual services like BetterHelp. With BetterHelp, you can choose how you want to do your weekly sessions—via phone, video, or even live-chat—and they’ll match you with a therapist in as little as 48 hours. Plus, you can message your therapist whenever you want (hello, yes please). New members can get 25 percent off their first month with code MENTAL25 and cancel whenever you want.
Use code MENTAL25 for a BetterHelp subscription, and get 25% off your first month.
Ready to put aside hot girl summer and welcome (emotionally) cooler fall? Here, experts share the 101 on emotional reactivity, then explain which therapy might be right for you. This treatment can help whether the outbursts are coming from within—or you’re on the receiving end.
What Causes Emotional Reactivity
What’s behind emotional reactivity? In some cases, it’s not you. It’s it—it being trauma.
Indeed, an emotionally reactive response often is tied to a past trauma, says Kathy Gomatos, LCSW, a Florida-based therapist affiliated with BetterHelp. (A study in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry confirms as much.)
Here’s the cascade that occurs: When something happens in the now, it can send your mind backward. “You’re responding to that past trauma or past memory,” Gomatos says. For example, if you’ve been neglected in the past, you may blow up at a partner when they don’t text you back quickly, whereas someone who hadn’t experienced neglect might respond more rationally.
Beyond trauma, past conditioning could have pre-set your internal response switch to high: In other words, emotional reactivity could be a learned behavior. You might be mimicking what you saw from your parents or other relatives. If you grew up in a house where the emotional vibe was over-the-top, you may believe that’s the only way to express how you’re feeling.
Of course, there’s not always someone else to blame. (“Sorry.” —the accountability police) General temperament and poor coping skills are other reasons for emotional reactivity, Fraser says. Some people are naturally more impulsive. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but reacting before processing feelings typically doesn’t make for constructive convos. It can be a real communication killer.
“If someone is very emotionally reactive, they may show their feelings in a big way,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, host of the Mentally Stronger podcast. “Yelling, sulking, or refusing to do things might be a few ways they show their partner how they feel.” This makes it pretty friggin’ hard to come out of arguments as a stronger unit. Or as more collaborative coworkers, for that matter.
Enter: le therapíste. (It’s actually le soigneur, but we didn’t know how many of you spoke French.) If emotional reactivity has been learned, it can be unlearned. If it’s due to a coping-skill desert in your brain, a therapist can teach you better ones. To be clear, becoming less emotionally reactive doesn’t mean turning into a monotone AI bot. The goal is to be able to handle stressful, sucky situations in a more measured way. A way that allows for better communication and healthier relationships.
How Therapy Can Help with Emotional Reactivity
If, as Queen Swift would sing, you know that you’re the problem (it’s you), congrats! “Noticing and becoming aware of emotional reactivity is often the first step in addressing and changing the behavior,” Fraser says. You’re on your way forward.
Now, it’s time to find a therapist. There are several types of therapy that can help deal with emotional reactivity, and they work in slightly different ways depending on your therapy goals. The four listed here are available through online therapy platform BetterHelp. (Even #4, a surprise to us!)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a classic type of talk therapy where you and the therapist work to identify and challenge negative thoughts and behaviors. “With emotional reactivity, CBT is particularly helpful in addressing awareness of patterns or triggers and developing a toolbox of healthier coping strategies,” Fraser says.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). While CBT focuses on why certain triggers may cause you to blow up and then redirecting those thoughts, DBT helps with tolerating and accepting uncomfortable emotions. It’s often used in people whose emotional reactivity is linked to trauma. As with CBT, you’ll learn through DBT how to handle triggers in a more productive way, notes Fraser.
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). If your eruptions tend to happen when you’re feeling particularly angsty, MBSR might be a good bet. The whole point of this type of therapy is to reduce stress and anxiety.
You know how, with certain physical illnesses, there are things that provoke a flare? (For example, UV exposure can cause an eczema spike.) And those things are sometimes best sidestepped? Or, if encountered, you’ve got methods to tamp it down fast? Same here. You’ll learn skills for avoiding triggers and, if they do occur, how to stop ruminating. MBSR, as its name implies, focuses on mindfulness techniques, so you’ll also get schooled in staying in the present.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). This therapy can be especially helpful for people whose emotional reactivity stems from unresolved trauma, says Morin. Here, the therapist has you engage in “bilateral stimulation”—which means doing certain types of eye movements—while processing traumatic memories for six to 12 sessions. It’s super important to work with someone who is specifically trained in EMDR, explains Gomatos, because uncovering deep-rooted trauma can cause more harm if done incorrectly.
EMDR is often coupled with another type of therapy, so don’t think of it as a way to get out of talking about past trauma, Gomatos says; it’s all part of the healing journey. EMDR helps with figuring out why you’re reacting, while another type of therapy can provide the tools for handling those reactions.
You may be reading this and thinking OMG LOL how would I know whether I need CBT, MBSR, or ABCDEFG! If it all sounds like alphabet soup, it’s ok: A therapist can help you figure out which therapy type will be most effective for you. (BetterHelp can match you with one of its 30,000 licensed therapists depending on your location and specific needs, and that comes with journaling tools, worksheets, and webinars if you want ‘em. Plus, if you don’t click with your first match, you can switch therapists anytime.)
Regardless of which therapy you end up with, most therapy sessions will start similarly. The therapist will ask about the ways emotional reactivity shows up in your life, Gomatos says. This may include the challenges it’s causing and how it’s impacting you and your job or relationships.
Then (likely in follow-up sessions), the therapist can help you figure out the root cause of your fiery emotions. “I’m very big on helping people understand the ‘why,’ because when we understand why something is happening, it helps us move on from it,” Gomatos says.
After the why comes the last big piece of the puzzle: the tools to manage difficult emotions without negative consequences. “The therapist may assign homework and strategies to practice working on,” Morin says. “During each conversation, the therapist will likely ask questions, point out different ideas, and give the person feedback as change occurs. Once enough progress has been made, they may start having conversations about when to end treatment.”
How Therapy Can Help You Manage Someone Else’s Emotional Reactivity
Maybe you’re not the emotionally reactive one. Maybe you’re on the receiving end of the storm from a partner, family member, friend, or boss. Let’s acknowledge this truth: It can be incredibly trying to have an emotionally reactive person in your orbit. It can even impact the way you feel about yourself. “[The non-reactive person] might start to internalize the problem and believe they are the one causing this type of behavior,” Gomatos says.
If you’ve started blaming yourself for someone else’s outbursts a therapist can help verify whether you are, in fact, dealing with reactive behavior, says Gomatos. This confirmation can help put an end to negative self-talk. Plus, the therapist can teach you ways to effectively deal. You can’t control another person’s behavior, but you can control how you react to their reactions.
Another way therapy can help with a partner’s emotional geysers? “By learning how to identify behaviors that fuel the person’s reactivity that contribute to relationship problems,” Morin says. The therapist can explain different ways to communicate or support someone as they’re trying to calm down.
Some people don’t even realize they’re emotionally reactive, Gomatos says. Getting a partner or coworker to understand this can be a minefield—and no, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to make them more self-aware. But if it’s a relationship that’s important to you, a therapist can give you a script for calling out their behavior in a way that doesn’t make everything worse.
And then, there’s couples therapy. (Not only for saving near-death marriages, FYI. And if you haven’t watched the series Couples Therapy, oh you must.) You can attend virtual therapy with the emotional reactor, if they’re open to it.
Virtual therapy is especially handy here if the other person lives far away and you can’t go together IRL. You’ll just need to make sure that the virtual therapist is licensed in the states you’re both calling from. Gomatos says many therapists are licensed in more than one state. (With BetterHelp, for example, you only get matched with therapists who are licensed in your state. You can then message them to find out if they are licensed in other states.)
So… Eager to learn the ways of the perfectly chill and never OTT? Just kidding. No one is always like that. We’re humans, and human nature includes emotionally detonating from time to time. But if “frazzled” is your constant state, know that you can change things. Therapy, including the virtual kind, may not turn you into a zen master, but it can help you take control. Not bad for not even leaving the house.