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Blog Short #168: Keeping Your Cool: Strategies to Reign in Overreactions

Photo by Andrii Iemelyanenko, Courtesy of iStock Photo

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
~ Viktor Frankl

I’m starting with that quote because it reflects what we’re talking about today: Finding that little space between your emotional reactions and responses so you have more control over how you respond.

When you utilize that space effectively, your responses will:

  1. Align with your values.
  2. Maintain your integrity.
  3. Express who you want to be.
  4. Facilitate effective communication.

There are four steps involved in the process of transforming your knee-jerk reactions into controlled, purposeful responses. Let’s go through them, and I’ll give you some methods to use to accomplish each.

First Step: Create space between your reaction and response.

This step is sometimes the hardest because when you’re emotionally triggered, your cognition closes down, and your emotions take over. It can happen in seconds, and it’s as though your entire focus narrows down to the feelings you’re having. You react fast and automatically without the benefit of first evaluating the situation.

This process is enabled by the older part of your brain – the amygdala – that controls fight or flight responses to any perceived danger. In these instances, the amygdala bypasses your prefrontal cortex, which is your thinking brain, and acts without rational considerations. It’s what happens when you “see red.”

So, finding that interim space takes some effort. Here are several things you can try.

1. Create a self-talk statement you’ll use anytime you feel reactive.

It’ll eventually become automated if you have the same statement ready and get used to employing it. You’ll slip at first, but with practice, your statement will arise in your mind the moment you feel triggered, thereby creating that space.

It can be simple, like, “Take a moment” or “Breathe!”

Whatever you choose, be consistent with it.

2. Remove yourself immediately from the environment.

It takes your brain at least 20 minutes to regain its equilibrium when you’re overwhelmed or triggered. Taking that time brings your thinking brain back on board so you can be deliberate about how you want to respond.

3. Use square breathing.

Take a deep breath to a count of four, hold it for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four. Do the whole routine four times. This quick remedy will interrupt the emotional reactivity that’s taken hold.

You can do all three of these things together or separately, depending on how strong your reactions are.

Second Step: Become self-aware.

Self-awareness is an exercise in mindfulness. The goal is to create distance between your feelings and your sense of self.

To do this, use an exercise called “affective labeling.”

It’s pretty easy. Begin labeling your feelings. Say what you’re feeling either mentally or out loud. For example, “I’m feeling red hot, overwhelmed, furious, immobilized, shocked, afraid” or whatever emotions are most prominent.

The process of mentally labeling your feelings gives you some distance from them while increasing the activity of your prefrontal cortex (thinking brain).

As you do that, you become self-aware of your thoughts and feelings, giving you a sense of control. It’s very grounding.

Third Step: Evaluate and plan your response.

Once you’ve successfully reached a level of emotional equilibrium that allows you to think and take control of your reactivity, you can begin to evaluate the situation and calmly plan how you’d like to respond.

You’ll be able to ensure your response is clear and direct yet delivered in a way that aligns with who you want to be and what you value.

You may have a very pointed response, but it’s more likely to be heard and taken seriously because you’ve thought it through.

When you’re reactive, you say things you often wish you could take back, or you can become so volatile that the only response from the other person is to fight back or defend.

When you think through what you want to get across, you can respond in a way that facilitates a real conversation rather than a back-and-forth attack and defense.

Fourth Step: Take action.

Now that you’re calm, clear, and thoughtful, you can respond or take whatever action you’ve chosen as the best option.

During this last step, it’s crucial to maintain your emotional equilibrium, so it’s a good idea to think ahead of what you will do if the response from the other person isn’t what you hoped for. Have a plan in place for those possibilities.

Things to Remember for Effective Communication

I’ve mentioned these things before in other blogs, but it’s always good to remember them when discussing effective communication. These basic rules keep everyone’s emotional equilibrium in place and allow a free flow of ideas and conversation.

1. Use “I” statements always when expressing your feelings and thoughts.

When you start a statement with “You,” you set the stage for an automatic defense from the other person.

Instead of,

“You hurt me when you yelled at me,”


“When you yell at me, I feel hurt and get angry. It’s hard for me to hear you under those circumstances.”

The second isn’t so accusatory. It creates some space in the conversation.

2. Take responsibility for your feelings.

Even though your emotions might be stimulated by what someone else says or does, you’re still responsible for them. That’s hard to swallow sometimes, but keeping it in mind will go a long way to resolve conflicts.

In the above scenario, you identified the stimulus that led to your emotions, which was the other person’s yelling. Still, you took responsibility for your feelings in reaction to the stimulus. That’s a critical difference that, although subtle, keeps defensiveness in check.

3. Ask questions.

When you’re overwhelmed or emotionally reactive to what the other person is saying or doing, ask questions.

This might seem counterintuitive, but doing it gives you time to get yourself under control while shifting the focus back to the other person.

Ask how they’re feeling, how they came to their conclusions or any question that seems curious and exploratory.

By doing that, you’re showing interest while opening up the space between you. Be a curious detective. As you do that, the emotional intensity will come down on both sides.

Keep This in Mind

Something that’s saved me many times in heated conversations is this truth:

Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.

Of course, you know that, but you likely forget it when you feel attacked or criticized. Our knee-jerk response is to defend.

But if you ask questions instead and make the other person think about what they’re saying, then at least you have the opportunity to evaluate what part of what they say could be true and what isn’t. You can always ask for time to think it over.

That’s the other thing that’s saved me on occasion. I’ll say,

“I’m not sure I agree with anything you’ve said, but I’d like some time to think about it. Then, we can revisit it.”

You never have to resolve something quickly. Time is an asset when resolving conflicts. Take the time you need, and allow the other person the same courtesy. Things are usually much clearer when you allow the emotional dust to settle.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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