How to Keep Calm and Carry On
Overreacting to a situation can get ugly. It's the kind of knee-jerk behavior that isn't thoughtful or reflective--in fact, it's usually damaging to relationships. And it makes you regret your actions soon after.
Call it a temper, short fuse or hot button, some people seem unable to slow down and think before lashing out at others when frustrated. Or maybe when something undesirable happens you engage in avoidant behaviors and negative self-talk, which can be equally counterproductive.
Both responses--exploding and imploding--are common forms of overreaction, says Dr. Judith Siegel, associate professor at New York University, corporate consultant and author of several books including "Stop Overacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions." And while you may feel like your tendency to respond to stress by blowing up or crawling into a hole is an unchangeable part of your personality, you can learn to feel collected and in control regardless what life throws at you. Here's Siegel's advice.
Label the physiological responses you're experiencing.
The part of your brain that registers danger reacts to stress by producing cortisone and adrenaline which put you in a state of high arousal. The physiological response is something you can actually feel in your gut, which is connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. It's why you might feel "butterflies" in your stomach before giving a speech, asking your boss for a raise, or pitching an important new client.
By taking the time to identify and label what you're physically feeling--something Siegel calls "interoception"--you're building connections between the left brain and the right brain. Doing so helps you use information appropriately, learn how to read yourself and others, as well as make thoughtful decisions.
"So what we want to do is build neural networks that will allow people to not get hijacked," she says. "Essentially when something triggers them and they have a strong emotional response, they don't understand it, they don't know how to use it, the neural networks shut down and they end up overreacting."
Identify the emotional triggers that set you off.
When it comes to business people, several emotions commonly elicit an overreaction: rejection, criticism, envy, and issues surrounding control.
"It could be that there's a relationship that you feel left out of at work [or] that you're feeling other people are getting recognized and you're not. Or it could be that you've worked really hard on a pitch and then you lose that deal," Siegel says. "Rejection lights up a part of the brain that connects with the stomach as if you were kicked in the gut. It's that powerful."
Criticism is particularly prevalent in business and Siegel suggests thinking through whether the complaints directed at you are a form of competition, a displacement of someone else's own problems, or actually constructive observations.
Envy is common to mankind but in business it can be crippling.
"You don't want people undercutting each other and you don't want latent anger. That's not an atmosphere that builds cooperation or teamwork and often it's about how somebody gets recognized or promoted that if it's not handled well creates an emotional turbulence," Siegel says.
As for control, it can cause people discomfort in two ways.
"Some people feel uncomfortable taking control and that's something that is a trigger for them, a fear of making a mistake or losing face," she says. "And for other people they absolutely need to be in control and they have a lot of anxiety even if they don't want to recognize that when too much control is being taken over by someone else."
Do not ruminate.
Siegel says exercises such as deep breathing, repeating a mantra or using mindfulness can help calm the part of your brain that has your body on high alert.
Sometimes business people can have a hard time with this because of their tendency to want to problem solve which often translates into mentally revisiting the disturbing event over and over again. Unfortunately, this rumination does nothing to help you calm down and see things accurately.
"You're problem solving something that's probably skewed. You shouldn't be trusting in your cognition at that moment," Siegel says. "Your problem solving is based on your interpretation of material that isn't thoughtful. It's not the whole picture."
Take care of yourself.
If you're sick, tired, hungry, or otherwise not at your physical best you're more likely to overreact.
"When you have multiple stressors it does accumulate and it truly is the straw that breaks the camel's back," she says. "So you need to know when to... use some strategies of self-care because you're getting put or you're putting yourself into a high-risk situation."
Do a self-inventory.
This involves asking yourself two vital questions.
First, how intense is this experience? Maybe whatever you were hoping would happen was a long shot, and it not coming through isn't that big of a deal. Alternately, if you've been working hard for a year trying to prove to your boss you're the one she should promote it may feel devastating if you don't get the job.
Second, how in control of your emotions do you feel right now? Imagine you just found out the IRS will audit your books, you're already in debt, someone in your family just received a medical diagnosis that's going to cost a lot of money, and you open your mail to see an unexpected charge on your credit card. You might feel like one more thing might set you off. It probably will, unless you identify your weakness ahead of time.
"A self-inventory allows you to know 'I think I'm building control of my emotions. I can manage more and take on more and do well with it,'" Siegel says.
Want more on this topic? Check out "The Flip Side of Negative Emotions," which explains how uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are actually good for you.