• Jason Wilkinson

Emotionally Reactive vs. Emotionally Regulated - The Emotional Difference

The holiday season is coming up…and that means extra stress. Have you ever tried finding a parking spot in Bridgeport Village during the month of November or December? Circling around the parking lot looking for a place to park, meanwhile your spouse or partner is in the passenger seat trying to help and give you directions. Maybe you start feeling overwhelmed or flustered and you react with a biting remark or comment.

Or maybe it is with kids in the backseat. They’re being a little too noisy. You’ve asked them once or twice to quiet down, but they clearly aren’t listening. You try to ignore it at first, but a couple of seconds later it becomes so aggravating that you impulsively scream “Shut Up!”

We have all had an emotional reaction that we wish we didn’t have. We have all said something in anger that we wish we could take back. The news cycle is filled with stories on the 2020 election that may be causing us anxiety or we get into big arguments over what feels like small things. We typically feel bad for our reactions, or we notice that those reactions lead to greater conflict. Rarely do they make us feel better.

Why do we react this way? If you really want to know why, keep reading.

Emotionally Reactive Truth #1: It Starts as an Emotional Pain

We learn about emotional pain early in life. It is likely for many of us that our first emotional pain came from our earliest attachments: our parents. This doesn’t mean that you had bad parents. It just one of those things in life that is unavoidable. For example, if a parent comes home from work and their three year-old comes up and wants to play, but the parent responds with, “Not right now. I’ve got to finish this email,” the child will feel an emotional pain. There is a break or violation of love or trust that can occurs. The child may feel rejected or confused. This just illustrates how unavoidable it is, no matter the family health. And it also illustrates how we all carry pain.

Because we have grown up around this emotional pain, however, our brain recognizes it well. When anything comes close to resembling that emotional pain, whether it is fear, loneliness, feeling unloved, etc., we have an immediate reaction.

Emotionally Reactive Truth #2: It Turns into a Coping Mechanism

And that immediate reaction is a coping behavior. Not many people like to feel pain, be it physical or emotional. So, the brain goes into overdrive trying to find was to avoid it. It accomplishes this task by reactively using a coping mechanism. For example, if feeling an emotional pain of being “unloved,” a person may react by becoming depressed. If feeling “disrespected”, that person may react in anger. If feeling “not good enough,” a person may experience anxiety and withdraw to escape it.

Certain coping behavior used to serve us really well while we were younger. In many cases, it helped us to survive the emotional pain or trauma we faced in childhood and adolescence. The usefulness of certain emotionally reactive coping mechanisms begin to change as we get older, however.

Emotionally Reactive Truth #3: It Won’t Give You What You Want

This last part is unfortunate, but it is true. Automatic coping behaviors rarely gives us the outcomes we desire.

Think about it. If a person if feeling unheard or disrespected while discussing the 2020 election with family around the Thanksgiving table and copes by becoming angry, what is it that that person wants? Probably not to cause a scene by throwing turkey legs around. That person wants to be seen, feel heard and respected. By now you’ve probably guessed, though, that getting angry isn’t actually going to help that person get what they desire. In fact, getting angry is likely going to do just the opposite.

With all this being said, if emotional reactivity is not what will help us achieve the desired outcomes, what will? The answer is emotional regulation. Emotional regulation will empower you to be intentional in your choices and in your actions. There are a number of techniques that can help ease anxiety and anger, but emotional regulation will not only help you achieve those goals, but also helps you in your relationships with others.

Whether it is the 2020 election or the upcoming holiday season that is causing emotional reactivity, it's likely that you would rather be intentional and regulated in your emotions. So…how can we be emotionally regulated individuals? I’ll be giving you some ideas on that next week.


Wellspace Counseling is located in Tualatin, Oregon and serves Tualatin, Lake Oswego, Tigard, and the Greater Portland Metro Area. To find more information about Wellspace Counseling, visit the at www.wellspacepdx.com.