Someone cuts you off on the freeway. You’re so angry you’re slow to honk your horn because you’re busy shouting and swearing after them.
You sigh loudly as soon as you get stuck in the slow line at the supermarket.
A social media post has your hackles up, and before you can stop yourself, you’re typing an angry reply.
We are imprisoned by our own emotions
These are just a few of the everyday actions of an emotionally reactive person. Quick to react to a delay, an issue, a controversial idea, a mistake, traffic jams, miscommunications, or other problems. You might know someone like this or, you may be realizing that you are also one of these people.
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Let’s be honest; we ALL are reactionary from time to time! We can feel it flaring up throughout our day. We might realize it or not, but it’s making our lives incredibly difficult. We are basically imprisoned by our own emotions.
You need to learn to pull you back in before you react
Imagine this. Someone is walking the dog. The person is using a leash, which allows them to guide and control the actions of the dog.
That’s what a reactive person truly is – the person and the dog.
So, when a dog spots a pigeon, it immediately wants to rush to it for further inspection. The person is then required to leap into action to prevent this from occurring.
It’s the exact same when dealing with someone who is reactive. You see something you don’t like, and your unconscious reaction is akin to chasing and barking at it.
What you need to learn how to do is become the human master who pulls you back in before you react. The only way you can do that is by learning how to calm yourself.
These are six essential steps on how to stop reacting and learn to calm yourself quickly.
Step 1 – Pause
When you feel it rising up, or you recognize a trigger, it’s important to pause and take a breath. This simple act of pausing and taking a breath means to become present. It creates that little extra space you need to disrupt your fight-or-flight response system and take effective action instead.
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For example, you’re in traffic, and someone cuts in because they hedged their bets and raced to the front of the crowd before a lane closes. It happens every day.
And of course, it’s something we don’t like. And what does our mind commands us to do when we don’t like something? It wants us to fight it in order to get rid of it.
So we immediately want to turn on our fight switch. But there is always a brief moment in which you still can decide to either follow the natural fight-or-flight instinct or to pause and take a deep breath instead. The latter allows you to shift your energy and turn your focus to yourself, to what is going on inside of you.
Step 2 – Accept and make room
What exactly are you feeling? Is it anger? Is it frustration? Insecurity or fear? If someone cuts you off, it’s probably anger.
Now at this point, most people will give you the advice not to allow yourself to get angry. But I ask you to do exactly the opposite – to open up and make room for your angry emotions.
You see, the biggest problem with challenging feelings and thoughts is that we try to push them away or suppress them. That’s not surprising; who wants to experience pain? And in the short run, this might also work because by pushing the unwanted feeling or thought away, we don’t have to face it, and we may get some immediate relief.
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However, in the long run, avoidance strategies are rarely helpful because they trigger a rebound effect so that the negative emotions or feelings not only keep on ‘hanging around,’ but they often return with higher intensity than before.
Whereas if you accept your anger and give it space, you take power out of the emotion, and you will find that the whole situation bothers you much less.
Step 3 – Lable it
Okay, the feeling is one thing; the other thing is what your mind makes out of it. Our mind is a great storyteller and constantly produces all sorts of thoughts, of which many are negative and have the ability to worry, frighten, stress, or depress you. But only if you fuse with them; that is, if you take the stories, your mind is telling you for the literal truth!
And here’s the thing: you don’t have to do this, you can take a step back and see them for what they are: nothing more or less than words and pictures in our head. If you do this, you will immediately reduce the impact and influence of these stories over you and regain control.
An easy and very effective way to do this is by labeling your thoughts and feelings. To stick with the example above, simply tell yourself, “I notice that this person has cut me off” or “I notice that I feel angry.” The simple act of objectively labeling what’s happening disrupts your unhelpful thought process, which gives you room to make a conscious decision about what to do next.
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Also, you’re no longer pushed around by your thoughts. They will lose their ability to worry, frighten, stress, or depress you.
Although labeling your thoughts is a simple technique, it requires some practice. So it is better to be prepared. As you navigate through your day, you will have different reactions that you can label. Start to practice labeling today, and you will find it easier to apply this technique next time you face a difficult situation.
Step 4 – Ask
Ask yourself why it triggered you the way it did. Did the event or the situation itself trigger you? Or is it related to something that has happened before? This step is about becoming aware of your blind spots and triggers.
Often the emotion in our reaction is due to something bubbling under the surface. It’s deeper than just being cut off. Rather, you may be reacting angrily because you feel that this makes you late. Think about whether you have ever cut someone off because you were late. You probably have. It doesn’t make it right, but it should help you put things in perspective.
Step 5 – Choose your response
You have paused, accepted, labeled, and asked – now it is time to choose your answer. This is an essential step in the process. Think about your goal, what is most important, and how you can respond productively. Will it help you achieve your goal if you get angry?
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No. The goal in our example is to get to work (or another goal) on time and safely. When you get angry, shift your focus and distract from that goal. A better reaction would be to shake it off and concentrate on the drive.
Step 6 – Empower yourself
Finally, it’s time to empower yourself! You can only move forward if you possess the awareness necessary to create better outcomes for everyone. Of course, it isn’t easy, but with practice, you will find yourself shifting away from reactive emotions and calming yourself more effectively. It’s all about building your capacity for self-reflection.
Remember: Just as the content of a thought is not considered problematic, but only your fusing with the thought that creates the problem, it is not the stress situations themselves that can harm you, but how you deal with the stress that affects your health.
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