I’ll own it: There are more times than I’d like to admit that I’ve snapped at my husband for something he did (or more often than not, didn’t do). To the unaware, these incidents and my strong thoughts and emotions would seem, at best, an overreaction. And, at worst, a total meltdown.
My emotional reactions never solved the problem. In fact, my outbursts have typically made whatever was happening worse, leaving him feeling confused and hurt. And me feeling alone.
But here’s the thing: Leaning on this kind of hasty response to stressful or uncomfortable situations—what’s called “emotional reactivity”—is really common. Experts say emotional reactivity can show up in just about any kind of interpersonal relationship in your life, from work to family, friendships to romance. (Perhaps why the term itself is so commonplace in TikTok videos.)
“Emotional reactivity is when you’re feeling stressed, or emotional, and you react out of that emotion in an impulsive, or in an emotional, manner,” says psychologist Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
The outsized emotional reaction doesn’t match the actual situation. “But the person is charged by the emotion,” she says, “and therefore they are perceiving the situation differently, in a more negative manner.”
To be clear: “Reacting to something with an emotion is not emotional reactivity,” stresses Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T., a psychotherapist specializing in sex and relationships. “When using the phrase emotional reactivity, you’re talking about something that is out of proportion.”
While I’ve become more attuned to what’s underneath these abrupt reactions, self-reflection (or even summoning a few deep breaths) is never an easy path. But it’s a worthwhile one. “If you’re someone who easily gets into arguments or confrontations with others, this could be a sign that [emotional reactivity] is more troublesome or damaging for you,” says Dr. Goldman.
So, friends, shall we take a little stock? If your sudden thoughts and feelings push you to the far end of the reactive scale, mental health pros are here with copes.
What Does Emotional Reactivity Look Like?
Emotional reactivity, much like anything else, is on a spectrum. “Someone could be emotionally reactive in one relationship, but typically very grounded and regulated in other situations,” says Wright. “Others may have limited capacity to regulate in any situation.”
Essentially, there is no one true definition of emotional reactivity, but it can often look like:
- Getting angry when things don’t go how you wanted or planned
- Jumping to conclusions before someone finishes what they’re saying
- Saying hurtful things to someone in the moment out of anger or frustration
- Responding in a negative or rude way when you are perceiving someone else to be rude
- Acting on the assumption of a worst-case scenario
If you’re silently mouthing the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” (“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me”), don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of us tick off items on this list. “We are all capable of being emotionally reactive, but some people do it more than others, or some emotions trigger it more than others,” says Dr. Goldman.
Ultimately, emotional reactivity is the result of a stressor. This puts the body into fight or flight mode. This lights up the sympathetic nervous system and sending signals to your brain that angsty stuff is going down.
When sudden intense emotional reactions become a regular thing, it can have lasting effects on not just your mental health, but physical health, too. Chronic stress can lead to high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is linked to damaging inflammation within the body.
One study even looked at whether there was a connection between emotional reactivity and mortality. And while the exact mechanisms at play are unclear, researchers found that the greater the decrease in positivity due to daily stressors, the greater the mortality risk. (Motivation to work on thy reactive self!)
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Emotional reactivity is often seen in people with a history of trauma or certain mental health conditions that involve emotional dysregulation. That’s when someone experiences intense emotions more frequently and for longer durations than what’s typical, explains Wright.
While not everyone with these conditions will be emotionally reactive, it can be commonly seen in “people with ADHD and bipolar, and could even play a role in some individuals with depression or anxiety,” says Dr. Goldman.
GOTTA READ: Is It ADHD, Bipolar, or Both?
When Emotional Reactivity Messes With Your Life
Your relationship with a spouse is obviously different from the one with your boss—or SO WE HOPE! It’s natural that the things that trigger an emotional reaction will be different in your various relationships. Not to mention what’s potentially at stake if the intense emotions win. Let’s walk through some details.
Emotional Reactivity At Work
If you’re not burnt out at your job, did a tree even fall in the forest? Burnout seems more prevalent at work than unproductive Zoom calls (and that’s sayin’ something!). A 2022 Deloitte survey found that 77 percent of people have experienced burnout at their current job, and nearly half of millennials have quit a gig because of burnout. Another 2022 survey, from Asana, found that Gen Z workers are more burnt than other generations. We all crispy out here!
GOTTA READ: 9 Ways to Use Cold Therapy to Calm Down NOW
So how does this relate to emotional reactivity? Beyond a stressful workload, your relationships with coworkers and bosses can be taxing, too. “If you don’t feel valued or seen for the work you’re doing and are only given negative feedback, emotions can boil over,” says Wright. You may become easily irritated or short-tempered. “Plus, at work, you’re not typically encouraged to show your emotions, so they can get stuffed down and then explode.”
Emotional reactivity within the workplace can have some very real repercussions. These can include being passed over for a promotion, being seen as unreliable or volatile, or even losing your job if it’s not under control.
“If there is an outburst and you need to repair it, apologize,” says Wright. “[Say,] I’m really sorry for my outburst. I felt ____ [emotion], and I expressed it quickly and poorly without thinking. It wasn’t appropriate, and I’m sorry. Own your stuff.” Addressing the situation head on prevents coworkers from speculating that you didn’t take the reaction seriously or that it’s going to happen again.
Emotional Reactivity With a Romantic Partner
We can all go ham on our person from time to time. But when it becomes a pattern, it needs to be addressed. You may want to consider couples therapy or something called DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy.
This type of cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on emotional regulation and self-destructive tendencies, says Wright. “You need to get to the ‘why,’ or why this is happening,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re just putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms.”
The reasons why someone is emotionally reactive in a relationship naturally vary from person to person, but they can include a mental health diagnosis, past trauma, fear, anxiety, or misunderstandings around emotions, says Wright. “You may start to distance yourself or become reactive if you aren’t feeling like your efforts are being appreciated, noticed, or reciprocated in some way,” adds Goldman.
Without digging deeper, you risk hurting your partner, worsening your own feelings, maintaining a toxic cycle, or eventually breaking up.
Emotional Reactivity in Your Friendships
Why are you lashing out at people who are supposed to be besties? It may be that you feel like you’re investing more in your friendship with someone than they are with you. When you’re in this kind of one-sided situation—where the other person isn’t making an effort to reach out, stay connected, or get together—it’s easy to become frustrated, says Dr. Goldman.
“When emotions come up in friendships, they’re often shoved down and thought of as things to ‘just get over,’ rather than sharing them and repairing anything that needs to be repaired,” Wright says. This creates a breeding ground for emotional reactivity, which can then take the other person off guard because they didn’t know something was going on in the first place.”
Relationships are relationships, says Wright. How you value and maintain your friendships should mirror other meaningful connections in your life. When you don’t do this, you risk isolating yourself or losing a friendship altogether.
Being Proactive About Being Emotionally Reactive
If emotional reactivity has become such a part of your life that you feel like it’s impossible to rein it in, know this: It isn’t. In essence, it comes down to learning how to thoughtfully respond versus instinctively react, says Dr. Goldman.
Of course, the reasons for an emotional boil-over can vary depending on the particular situation or person you’re dealing with. But the way to keep your cool—or start repairing after a heated conversation—generally follows a similar path.
- Hit pause. “Slowing down, or even taking a pause, before you react, allows you to gauge the situation a bit better,” says Dr. Goldman.
- Step away from the conversation. Physically removing yourself from a tense environment takes hit-pause advice one step further. “Maybe say something like, I need a few minutes. Can I take a walk outside to cool down, or even go to another room to breathe for a few moments, and then can we come back to this later?” Dr. Goldman suggests.
- Practice active listening. Avoid talking over the other person, and remain present. The goal is to actually take in what they’re saying before jumping to conclusions.
- Consider your triggers. Avoiding hot buttons isn’t always possible. But if the same things consistently annoy you, address it with the person. Say, for example, your friend is nonstop on their phone when you’re at dinner together. Maybe don’t yell out “You suck!” in the middle of a meal, but instead chat during a calm time when you can stay rational.
- Take a breath. Literally. Long, deep inhales and slow exhales can calm the parasympathetic nervous system. This reduces stress and helps you think more clearly before reacting.
- Repair quickly. Once you take a moment to feel less reactive, come back to the conversation and apologize for what happened. This is not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about taking accountability for the emotional reactivity.
Here’s the bottom line: There’s nothing shameful about being quick to respond to something. You’re a human. We have emotions. “Your body does what it thinks it needs to do to survive a real or perceived stressor,” says Dr. Goldman. “But it’s important to be able to identify when that reaction is necessary and maybe when you can tone it down a bit and respond, instead of reacting in the moment.”