How to Stop Overreacting to the Small Stuff

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“It is not our stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

– Dr. Hans Selye

All of us—on occasion, at least—overreact to the small stuff, often without even realizing it. If you find yourself getting overly angry, upset, or defensive over little things, take comfort in knowing that there are actions you can take to more effectively manage your emotions. Listen, it’s totally okay to feel your emotions and want to explode sometimes; but that way of dealing with situations doesn’t tend to feel so great. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge annoying predicaments and then find constructive ways to express and deal with them serves us much better in the long run. If something truly upsetting happens, it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset. However, it isn’t necessarily good for us to sweat all the small stuff and hype ourselves into overreaction every time we get upset.

Real issues start to arise when we react much more than necessary under the circumstances. For example, someone cutting you off in traffic isn’t a reason to scream, stick your middle finger out the window, and yell at the person in your passenger seat. We’ve all been there, of course, but the reality is, it isn’t very helpful. It only serves to put us at risk of creating a bigger issue or accident. Overreactions never make situations better; in fact, they usually make them worse. Stress in our lives can create the conditions for us to overreact. But even though doing so might release tension in the moment, it doesn’t solve the true source of the stress. All it does is paradoxically create more stress and anxiety. So, when you find yourself sweating the small stuff, it might be a sign that there are other, deeper problems you aren’t dealing with, making you liable to blow a gasket at any moment.

Many people who overreact tend to overthink situations that don’t go their way, leaving them incapable of thinking about anything else. Overreacting can affect their happiness to the point that it gets in the way of the things they really want to do. Entertaining thoughts like, “Why do I have such bad luck?” or “This always happens to me” only creates more stress and anxiety in their lives.

Know Your Triggers

All of us have triggers that can lead us to overreact at times. If we know what those triggers are, we can learn to be more in control of ourselves when our buttons are pushed. Personally, I overreact and feel triggered whenever I work hard on something and someone is critical of it. I’m pretty positive and encouraging toward others, and I can also take constructive criticism pretty well. However, if I think another person is being unfairly critical, it’s easy for me to lose it. Knowing this about myself, I become more aware of my reactions and try to more calmly respond to people when they’re offering criticism.

If you aren’t totally aware of what your triggers are, it might help to reflect on the past week and all the times something upset you. Whether it was justified or not, identify the things that bothered you the most. It could be rejection, criticism, or even something that has nothing to do with you, like someone talking about politics. It’s also important to think about whether you were tired, hungry, or anxious about work in those moments. The last time you overreacted, what was going on with you? Had you not eaten for a while? Was it the end of a hectic week? If you can find out what triggers you and get a sense of the circumstances around those triggers, you might be able to better manage yourself when something upsets you in the future. This gives you time to gain some perspective about what really happened during those moments when you lost your cool. It’s important to look back, not to punish yourself for overreacting, but to learn from the experience. Ask yourself some more questions like, “Why did I do that?” and “What could I have done differently?” If you’re having a hard time reflecting on your actions, separate yourself from the event to get a clearer perspective. How would other people see it? How would your idol handle the same situation? Taking a closer look at the mindset you were operating from in the past isn’t an easy thing to do, but it will help you, in the long run, to respond instead of overreact.

Check your expectations, and make sure they’re realistic. Life can move smoothly at times, but inconveniences are inevitable. People and situations aren’t always predictable. Take yourself out of your own mind, and think about how other people might feel about things. Overreactions sometimes happen when we get hyper-focused on ourselves and our own emotions. None of us are entitled to a perfect life. By taking some time to manage our expectations, we can greatly reduce the chances of overreacting to the imperfections.

Always keep in mind that if something has been bothering you for a really long time, the smallest inconvenience can push you overboard. Try to address the past and resolve anything that’s truly bothering you in the present moment. If you don’t, I can assure you that you’ll continue to sweat the small stuff. Address issues head-on as soon as they arise. Let it out so you can let it go and move on. Keep a journal, write a letter, do whatever it takes to talk it out. It’s no secret that life can get tough. And when things don’t go our way, it’s easy to lose patience. Try to manage yourself with the tips below, so that you can appropriately respond to the situations that arise in your life, one at a time.

Take a moment: Notice the changes within you (tension in your neck, hot cheeks, elevated heart rate). Keep breathing deeply, and cool down.

Rationalize: Think about what just happened rationally by bringing yourself closer to objective truth rather than your subjective experience. Find a way to be compassionate and avoid personalizing what happened to you.

Act: Express yourself with “I” statements, or remove yourself from the situation. If you’re still upset, find a way to re-channel how you feel.

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Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

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