Each of us has our own personal response styles when it comes to dealing with potential threats, everyday stressors and worries about the future. These responses are rooted in our genes, life experiences, family culture and societal pressures — and in our thought patterns, personalities and lifestyles. Yet, at this moment, the issues that are triggering our individual emotional distress are common to many of us — political strife, racism, sexual misconduct scandals, gun violence, hate crimes, human rights abuses, the climate crisis and now, of course, the covid-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and the protests about George Floyd’s death.
While it’s understandable to feel emotional distress about these issues, you don’t have to be at its mercy. Each of us can take steps to prevent, relieve or short-circuit our reactions as they’re occurring. But first it’s crucial to understand your personal reactor type. We have identified four primary reaction styles to the modern world’s turmoil, though many people may identify with more than one set of feelings or responses to upsetting events and you shouldn’t be surprised to discover that you have a hybrid form of emotional inflammation.
Here’s a look at the four reactor types, with tips on how best to relieve that particular brand of emotional turbulence:
The nervous reactor
You are anxious, worried, fearful or apprehensive. You may not know exactly what’s bothering you or making you feel unsettled but you can’t escape a feeling of unease. Research suggests that this heightened emotional reactivity may be rooted in part in adverse childhood experiences (such as financial hardship, divorce, neglect or high levels of family conflict). As unpleasant as it may feel to react this way, it’s an adaptive instinct that can help you stay attuned to threats and uncertainty and take action to prevent harmful consequences. The drawback is that you may have trouble turning off your worries.
To restore your emotional equilibrium: Be adamant about taking time every day to relax your body and mind with meditation, yoga or deep-breathing exercises. If you find your emotions being escalated by alarming news reports, put yourself on “a media diet”: Decide how often you’ll engage with the traditional media and social media, and honor those limits so your mind-set won’t be hijacked by worrisome messages all day long. Also, reduce your intake of stimulants, including caffeine (which can heighten stress reactivity), and increase your intake of calming foods that contain magnesium (nuts, seeds, spinach, bananas and whole grains), omega-3 fatty acids (in fatty fish like salmon, anchovies and sardines, and chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds) as well as probiotics (beneficial bacteria in yogurt, kefir, kombucha and other fermented foods).
The revved-up reactor
You are frenetic, agitated, hyper-reactive in your emotional inflammation. When an issue or worry ratchets you up, you probably want to swing into action stat and you may frequently tell yourself that you should be doing more or acting faster than you are to change things in your own life or the world at large. On the surface, this slightly frenzied style may seem proactive, because it incites you to act on your principles, but it may also be an unconscious attempt to distract yourself from or avoid contemplating deeper, more painful emotions. In the mental health field, this tendency to act impulsively when people experience negative emotions or stress is often referred to as “negative urgency.” Studies show that people with negative urgency often have greater sympathetic nervous system activation in response to stress, which often accentuates emotionally driven impulsive behavior.
To restore your emotional equilibrium: Slow down and prioritize your actions, based on how or where you can be particularly effective. Exercising your critical thinking skills — such as questioning the veracity of the information you’re hearing before deciding whether to act on it — will also help you avoid spinning your wheels. Schedule downtime: Take a walk in nature to absorb the sounds, scents and sights and other soothing effects. Immerse yourself in a hobby, listen to or make music; read books that capture your imagination. Research has found that greater participation in enjoyable leisure activities is associated with lower blood pressure, more positive moods, a greater sense of calm and a buffering effect against the negative psychological impact of stress.
The molten reactor
Your emotional inflammation is marked by irritation, indignation, maybe even anger and hostility, whether this is a trait state or a learned behavior. You may feel besieged, frustrated or aggravated by all the scandals, dysfunction, abuses, injustices and other forms of misconduct in the world. This ongoing state of exasperation can make you feel inclined to push back or lash out against people or situations that rub you the wrong way. You may feel like your disgust or dissatisfaction needs to be expressed to make other people more accountable and responsible for their actions.
To restore your emotional equilibrium: Think about fixing, not fighting. Take steps to manage your angry feelings — by monitoring and reframing them in a more constructive way, engaging with others in problem solving and using relaxation techniques. These efforts can reduce negative reactions to daily stressors as well as anger-provoking situations. In addition, research has found that narrating a story about a situation or event that upset you, using the past tense, reduces emotional distress (particularly anger) associated with those experiences. If alcohol and caffeine turn up the temperature on your emotions, lower your intake or time it better.
The retreating reactor
You respond to emotional triggers by withdrawing, zoning out, turning inward or using alcohol, food or other substances to numb your mood. Deep down, you may have a sense of powerlessness, despair or resignation, believing that how you feel or what you do won’t make a difference in improving the conditions that are upsetting you. In some ways, this inclination to retreat inward is a form of self-preservation, a way to protect yourself from the chaos and harshness of the world. But it can backfire; studies have found that this tendency can lead to emotional inertia, causing you to get stuck in negative emotions, including depressive symptoms.
To restore your emotional equilibrium: Remind yourself that everything we do individually is counted together — just like votes on Election Day. Similarly, your personal choices have ripple effects, influencing the people around you and creating social norms that can lead to cultural change. When you catch yourself feeling dragged down by distressing situations, remember that getting or giving a hug to people or pets can stimulate the release of the bonding and calming hormone oxytocin. Also, practicing gratitude — by thinking about and expressing what and whom you appreciate in your life — can help: Research suggests that gratitude has an effect like flipping a switch in our minds, one that helps us feel better in the moment and triggers a cascade of feelings that brings on more gratitude.
Tips for all types of reactors
Every reactor type can benefit emotionally from taking steps to help others. Research has found that volunteering enhances your emotional well-being and your sense of engagement and competence. It also puts us on the road to moving from being a bystander, someone who simply watches harm or injustices happen, to becoming an upstander, someone who, after recognizing that something is wrong, speaks up or stands up to work to make it right. Taking empowering action to change things moves us from feeling vulnerable and victimized to feeling strong, capable and resilient — a potent antidote to emotional inflammation.
Also, remember that when you have an emotional reaction to something, the stress hormone cortisol is released by the brain and puts the body on high alert. But this surge lasts for only 90 seconds, according to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor. After that, any lingering emotional response stems from your choosing, consciously or not, to stay in that emotional loop. So keep an eye on the clock! Let the emotion surge through you for 90 seconds then consciously release it from your mind and refocus your attention. Your emotions will naturally dissipate.
When you take these steps to restore your emotional equilibrium, you’ll be able to better cope with the challenges of our tumultuous world. And you’ll reclaim a greater sense of calm, purpose and connection to others.
Lise Van Susteren is a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md., specializing in health and psychology. They are the co-authors of “Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times” (Sounds True, April 2020).