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Live Life Fully: Are overreactions causing you to spin out of control?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We're all familiar with overreacting to situations, whether that involves us personally or those around us. And overreacting to stressful situations can actually cause more stress than the situation itself.

Have you found yourself in compromising situations lately? When we allow ourselves to get our buttons pushed, there's a tendency to jump to conclusions or point fingers of blame.

We often overreact to situations without even knowing it. How does this happen? Our emotions take over. Once we gain control over our emotions, we're able to choose better reactions, which leads to better solutions. Of course, everyone overreacts from time to time. It's when your overreactions become the norm that the caution flag is raised.

But what about under-reacting? I recently was struck by an insight on this twist from author Gretchen Rubin. "Resolve to under-react to problems," says Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project" and "Happier at Home." The premise is that your under-reaction will help you feel calmer and more in control. And that, in turn, will create a more serene atmosphere for you and those around you.

If we did this, I bet most of us would be less likely to fly off the handle. And under-reacting doesn't mean to ignore or minimize problems, just to be aware so they don't get the best of you.

"I've found that under-reacting to little household accidents makes them less irritating," said Rubin, "because, after all, they're only as annoying as I allow them to be. No more yelling over spilt nail polish." This reminds me of the scenarios in which children fall down -- and then look to the adults to see whether they ought to cry.

Although we think we act because of the way we feel, we often feel because of the way we act. So, here's a challenge to try on for size: Act the way you want to feel.

Think of stepping back briefly to gain composure. When we overreact, we're allowing ourselves to spin out of control. Under-reacting will likely result in a restoration of the feeling of being in control, and a better outcome for all concerned. Easier said than done though.

Consider the following action strategies from writers Franck Pasquet and Gini Grey to help you stop overreacting:

Identify common stress reactions

Worry, panic, blame and denial are some of the ways we react to stressful situations in life. All of us have sets of coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, these are often unconscious habits carried over from childhood. Screaming may have worked at age 4. At age 40, not so much. Pouting, hiding and running away are not very productive either.

The art of not reacting

When you're presented with certain situations, try not reacting at all. Instead, take a time out to think about the situation, and then formulate your reaction. My friend Stephanie has a "72-Hour Rule" she imposes in situations that allow for that kind of reflection. Remember, you don't have to immediately respond to that volatile email or voicemail.

Let out your emotions

Let yourself feel your emotions and find positive ways to express them. When you let your emotions build up, they become stronger inside you. It's hard to stop yourself from overreacting when you're full of pent-up emotion.

Try new responses

Stress reactions are habits that, with awareness and patience, can be changed. Sometimes doing the opposite can be helpful. Instead of blaming another, you could practice acceptance and forgiveness, while looking at how you may have contributed to the situation. Rather than jumping in to help out, the overly responsible person could hold back for a while.

Write it down

Instead of reacting to a situation at all, write it down. This is another way of giving yourself time to think about the situation. Later on -- once you read what you wrote -- you may be able to see whether you overreacted.

Practice relaxation techniques

When you incorporate relaxation techniques into your life, you'll find you're automatically more in control of your emotions. The trick is finding out what works best for you. For some, it's deep breathing, a yoga or Zumba class, or staring into a candle flame. For others, it could be a walk in nature or a vigorous workout.

Do a little experimenting. Relaxation will curb your stress and you'll be less likely to lash out with negative emotions. (Note: Multiple pints of ice cream and numbing out in front of the TV may distract you temporarily to gain a change of perspective, but this technique wouldn't be on the top-10 lists of effective tools.)

Avoid judging

Make it a point to stop judging yourself and others. Judgments can give you strong opinions that may be unwarranted, leading to overreactions. In the same vein, when you judge yourself for overreacting, you aren't allowing yourself to make mistakes, which is a self-defeating attitude.

I'll add one more to the list: Cut yourself some slack. You may still overreact from time to time, but that's OK. Behavioral change takes time. It's well worth the investment though.

As Great Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague has said, "I've found I get a better reaction from people once I'm less bothered about their reaction."

Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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