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Emotional reactivity and its regulation

Updated on January 16, 2016

We all face every day events and situations that provoke emotional reactivity in us. Emotional reactivity can be defined as an uncontrollable reaction to a particular unpleasant event. Instead of responding to such a situation, our emotions surge forth with an intensity that acutely disturbs our state of mind as well as of those, who are involved in the situation.

Rothbart & Derryberry (1981) described it as: Emotional reactivity is often conceptualized as a dimension of temperament and refers to an individual’s characteristic threshold, intensity and duration of affective arousal. For example, an individual may be referred to as being at the extreme on a dimension of negative emotional reactivity if he or she displays frequent, intense and rapid distress responses to situations that are frustrating.

It appears that we have a built-in mechanism of emotional reactivity, which we express instantly in many instances in our day-to-day life. Emotional reactivity holds a powerful sway over us, making us distraught and unhappy. Even for illogical reasons, people are emotionally affected by responses of others on social networking sites, as favorable responses make them happy and unfavorable ones make them unhappy. This simply shows how emotional reactivity affects our mental stability.

Emotional reactivity, therefore, has a strong negative component as an unpleasant event will provoke a negative reactivity. And thus our emotional reactivity will correspondingly affect our disposition and temperament in a particular situation.

It is significant to know that we all have different emotional reactivity even in the same situation, depending on our emotional make-up, which varies widely in individuals. Emotionally reactive people are the first to react to traffic jams, delays, miscommunications, problems, mistakes and controversial ideas. People, who are strongly emotionally reactive, tend to make their life very, very difficult because they are enslaved by their emotions. In fact, we all are slaves of our emotions to varying extents but emotionally reactive people allow themselves to be pulled along by their savage reactions, resulting in heated arguments to pontificate their views and justify the superiority of their stand.

Recent research suggests that failure to acquire the skills needed to manage emotional responses and emotional arousal may lead to difficulties in such areas as social interaction (Calkins, 1994; Cicchetti, Ackerman & Izard, 1995; Eisenberg et al., 1993, 1994; Rubin et al., 1995).

Disadvantages of emotional reactivity –

  • Emotional reactivity is contagious and so it provokes the same reaction from others we are communicating with. As a result, it will hamper our conversation due to emotional flare-up.
  • Emotional reactivity is a sign of disrespect to others as it undermines the basics of good behavior, which is necessary to maintain healthy relationships.
  • Emotional reactivity undermines trust with others, which is very important to maintain good relationships.
  • Emotional reactivity blocks understanding with others, which hinders our listening process. Thus, it affects adversely reaching amicable solutions to the problems with others.
  • Emotional reactivity prevents others from saying what they want to say. It means that it takes longer to achieve resolution to problems.
  • Emotional reactivity creates defensiveness. Therefore, it decreases the likelihood of someone opening up further. Thus, it badly affects good communication.

As we have experienced that our emotional reactivity can significantly affect our personal, family, professional and social life, it, therefore, becomes imperative that we manage to regulate it well. To do so, we have to develop the ability that includes following three components:

Emotional awareness – It means that we have to develop an ability to identify our own emotions as well as of others.

Emotional control – It means that we have to develop an ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks such as thinking and problem solving.

Emotional management – It means that we have to develop the ability to regulate our emotions and learn to calm down or cheer up others.

Emotion regulation refers to efforts on the part of the individual to manage, modulate, inhibit and enhance emotions (Cicchetti, Ganiban, & Barnett, 1991; Kopp; 1982; 1989; Thompson, 1994).

So, in view of the observations of above experts, it is essential that people should make sincere efforts to regulate their emotional reactivity.

How to regulate emotional reactivity? -

In order to regulate emotional reactivity, an individual has to regulate one’s thoughts, which so intimately influence ones emotions resulting in concordant behavior.

  • On some occasions our emotional reactivity has underlying irritation or grudge against someone. And if due to some reason such a person further offends or contradicts us, we fly off the handle, thereby strengthening the existing grudge. So, in the first place, we should avoid nursing any grudge against someone. Grudges always stem from misunderstandings, which should be soon sorted out without any delay. If we find that if other person being at fault avoids sorting out the misunderstanding, we should not allow the situation to escalate further by carrying the grudge but on the other hand forgive the person. This will make us peaceful and we will be able to avoid emotional flare-up when interacting with the person in future.
  • Many are emotionally sensitive, which is inborn to a certain extent but mostly we learn to habitually overreact to situations. This sets up our emotional reactivity on a higher keel, thus programming us to do so always. We can gradually reverse emotional sensitivity to a considerable extent by diligent practice. By reflecting over situations of the past in which we were victims of emotional reactivity, we can learn to react better by rehashing those situations with positive changes so that we won’t repeat what we did. Thus, with the help of such visualization exercises, we will be able to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But, in fact, our mistakes can be good teachers.
  • We should practice mindfulness in daily life by being aware of our thoughts, feeling and emotions that arise in the present moment. Gradually, with its practice we can understand the nature of thoughts, feelings and emotions better. Our understanding of the nexus of thoughts and emotions will help us regulate our thoughts, which will in turn reduce our emotional impulsivity. More positive thoughts will help us generate more positive emotions, thereby avoiding emotional reactivity.
  • We should try our best to stay in the present moment. The advantage of being in the present moment is that we will not ruminate about the bad events of the past and will not worry about what our future is going to unfold. This will keep our mind free from worry and tension. And thus our emotional reactivity will be more controlled.
  • We can regulate emotional reactivity by changing our perceptions of the situations. If we learn to try to understand the viewpoints of others in different situations, our perceptions of them will also change. By walking in the shoes of others we can understand their difficulties better. Thus, widening our general perspective will reduce our emotional sensitivity and including other’s perspectives will change positively our reactions to situations.
  • We can practice objective observations of different situations by stepping back from them for a while before we react to them. Once we learn to do so, our emotional reactivity to situations will change. We will be able to view them in a wider perspective before we react. The practice of objective observation of different situations will make us respond proactively instead of reacting impulsively.
  • People, who often react emotionally, are actually quite impatient by temperament. Such people will have to learn the skill of being patient, which is, in fact, the antidote to emotional impulsivity. We can learn art of patience by frequently visualizing different situations where it is actually required. We can also learn by repeating frequently positively constructed affirmations about patience and its benefits.

The bottom line –

No one has been bereft of the experience of how emotional reactivity affects ones interpersonal interactions. In addition, it affectively influences our state of mind when we are under its sway, causing us discomfort and unhappiness. As it affects our happiness and of those around us, it is essential that we learn how to regulate emotional reactivity.

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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image
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      Dr Pran Rangan 20 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Denise for your nice comments and sharing your views.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 20 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I used to be very emotionally reactive. It was not until I received treatment for my depression that I realized that this is a product of my thought processes. Now, I am much more emotionally stable and am even able to help others develop a greater sense of emotional stability by teaching them to be more aware of their thought processes.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image
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      Dr Pran Rangan 20 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Abdullah for your nice and encouraging comments.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image
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      Dr Pran Rangan 20 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Angela for your nice comments. True if we can take care of our emotions well, no one will be able to take undue advantage of us.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image
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      Dr Pran Rangan 20 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Martha for your encouraging comments.

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 20 months ago

      Very good article Dr Pran. Thanks for sharing. You have touched upon a very sensitive topic with perfection, it covers all the aspects with which the emotional reactivity can be conceptualized with ease. However regulation aspect can be more elaborative.

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      Angela Jeter 20 months ago

      Agreed! Great article. Basically we all have our own personalities and/or products of our environments, so instead of expecting people to deal with our emotions, we need to make aware of our personality and deal with it accordingly without forcing it on others and being taken advantage of!

    • HealthbyMartha profile image

      Martha Montour 20 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Great article! I agree about seeking ways to regulate how we react to people and situations. Living in the present and practicing mindfulness are excellent "prescriptions" for regulating our emotional reactivity and for daily life.