Truth be told, I didn’t realize there was actually a term for intense (trauma related) over-reacting until recently. Let me be clear here, I am not going to be talking about being a little bit extra emotional around that time of the month. I am also not talking about someone who is routinely dramatic. I am talking about when your mental health and emotional state are not regulating properly due to some past trauma.
Now, I am NOT a doctor or a licensed therapist. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am simply sharing what has worked for me and what I have learned from my personal research.
Emotional Dysregulation, also known as emotional hyperreactivity, is a term that refers to ones inability to process certain events or stimuli and emotionally respond within the social standards of a normal reaction. For example, lets take a look at my own life.
As a kid, my mom used to smack us on the butt playfully as she walked past us. Instead of a normal reaction of say, laughing or blushing, I would outrage at her behavior. “That’s so inappropriate!” I would yell at her. She would argue back with me saying that she was my mother and it wasn’t. She would say “I’m just messing around, lighten up.” But her responses didn’t help me in the slightest and sometimes I would work myself up so much I would begin to cry. Whenever she would smack me on the butt, my heart would immediately begin to race and I could feel my chest tightening. Sound like a reaction you’ve ever had to something?
From that story, it should be pretty easy to realize that my reactions were not within acceptable range of emotion. A child without traumatic stress would’ve let it slide off there back, or simply been a little miffed. Most likely, they wouldn’t have had a panic attack and started insulting their mother. After a few years of outbursts similar to this one, my mom began teaching me a way to manage my emotions. I am going to share the technique she taught me as well as some other techniques I have learned and developed over the years.
1- Scaling Your Reactions
After a few years of emotional outbursts that certainly didn’t warrant the intensity I gave them, my mom taught me this simple trick. She would ask me, “If you saw this happen to someone else, on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being extremely calm and 10 being a total outburst complete with punching and tears, what do you think their reaction would be?”
I would take a moment and envision some of my classmates or friends and I knew in my heart of hearts that they would react much lower on the scale, say a 3 for my example above. Then my mom would ask me “Now think about your reaction, where on the scale do you fall?” and in the example above, I responded with “7”.
How Does Scaling Your Reactions Help?
Using this simple self-reflection technique, I began to see a fall in the amount of overreactions I had. Eventually I would catch myself before I exhibited the emotions I was feeling. I would be subjected to a trigger of my trauma and before I responded to it, I would think to myself “Where on the scale should my response be” and after about a year or so I was able to use self-discipline and choose my reactions instead of being slave to my emotions.
For example, when I would see my little brothers wrestling, I used to get extremely uncomfortable. Now, I know wrestling is a common game among young boys. Heck, there’s even a sport around it. But because of the abuse I had been through, it would make me want to scream at them to stop. And a couple of times – I did. But eventually it got to the point where when I would walk into my brothers having a wrestling match I would remind myself what the correct response should be on the scale. And I would react accordingly. Eventually I rewired my brain to not care. After telling myself it was normal so many times, I began to actually believe it.
Another great thing this tip has done for me over the years, is it helped me realize what my triggers are to begin with! Being able to recognize the different social situations, physical cues or events that would trigger these emotional responses gave me the edge to be able to prepare mentally for these triggers and avoid them when I needed too. I would spend hours at home planning how I could react to certain triggers in the future. I learned key phrases to use with others so as to make them leave me alone, without raising a lot of suspicion to what I was going through.
If the scaling trick wasn’t working for me or I needed to calm down quicker – I would try breathing exercises. Breathing exercises are great for those times when you’re experiencing a sensory overload. For those times where your heart is pounding so loudly it all you can hear. Or everything around you turns into fuzzy background noise and even if someone is talking right in front of you it’s like they’re talking with the parents’ voice from Charlie brown. All you hear is Waa, Waa, Waa. Focusing on your breathing not only calms you down, but it re-centers yourself.
Some breathing exercises are:
- Closing your eyes and focusing on the sound of the air entering and leaving your body
- Inhaling in for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts.
How Do Breathing Exercises Help?
When you close your eyes to focus on the sound of your breathing you are essentially blocking out what is happening around you. This allows your mind to take a break from what was causing your sensory overload. And therefore giving you the opportunity to respond in an acceptable manner. The purpose of timing your breathing is again making you focus on something else. On top of that, making your breaths equal is kind of like telling your body to even itself out. When your breathing is even, you can then focus on making your emotions even with a correct response.
Another great way to get a handle on your emotions is by making observations of your surroundings. This is my go to trick when I’m driving and feel like I’ve been hit with an emotional freight train. I start with the simple things, like trees and clouds. What color are the leaves? Do they have a lot of leaves? What shape are the clouds? Are there a lot of clouds?
If the simple things like clouds and trees don’t do the trick, I move onto more in-depth characteristics. What kind of restaurants are around me? Why would they pick that color sign? Does that color tie into the kind of food they serve? As I pass a stranger on the street, I might make myself take a guess at their profession or the kind of personality they might have. *Please keep your eyes on the road though! Don’t get in a crash because you’re wondering if that jogger is a secret CIA agent*
How Does Observing Your Surroundings Help?
The goal with this tactic is to get your mind off of the emotional trigger and to ensure your brain isn’t distracted by the overwhelming emotions. By focusing on the simple everyday surroundings you are pulling yourself back into reality. Taking note of the restaurant sign I just passed, zaps me back into focus and I remember where I am. It is always helpful for me to remember that I’m not in danger, I’m just driving to work (or whatever you’re doing when your triggers rudely interrupt).
Last, but not least, MANTRAS! This tip always seemed to “hippy-dippy” for me at first. (But the breathing didn’t? you ask – I know. I never said I was consistent). Mantras became my best friend as I got older and into high school. I realized that not only did my triggers create intense emotions, but I also had a lot of insecurities from my trauma. By reciting mantras to regain control of my emotions, I was also enforcing positive images of myself that helped boost my confidence. Even though I mostly used these in high school, I still use them today when I feel myself getting unstable or feeling particularly down on myself.
Some examples I used:
- I can’t be hurt anymore. I am strong and I am safe.
- Inside me is the strength to overcome my emotions.
- My emotions don’t control me, I control them.
- What happened to me, does not define me.
- I am set free from my past, nothing can hold me back.
How Does Repeating Mantras Help?
There is the power of life and death in our tongues! God tells us this in the bible. Even if you aren’t a believer it’s no surprise that when someone who is constantly negative, has a very negative life, right? So when you are repeating positive affirmations to yourself (especially when you say them out loud), you are re-wiring your brain to respond differently. As well as telling the world, you aren’t going to live the way you were living before.
PIN SOME OF THESE MANTRAS BELOW!
If your emotions get the best of you some day, it’s okay. Trust me, anyone who’s struggled with trauma knows what it’s like to have your emotions bulldoze over you. But the good news is that with some practice there is hope! I can count on one hand the amount of outbursts I’ve had in the last two years. And these techniques helped me get to where I am today. If you struggle with Emotional Dysregulation, you may struggle with Sensory Overload as well. Read my tips for coping with sensory overload as well.
Are there any other tips you use? Leave them in the comments or shoot me an email with an experience you’ve had!