You and your partner are enjoying a dinner in your favourite restaurant with a group of good friends. As the evening progresses you become aware that your partner and your best friend seem to be flirting. You are growing uncomfortable and suggest leaving early which gets you an annoyed look from your partner. On the way home, as you drive in silence, you keep thinking “I’m wondering if they are seeing each other behind my back. He has been acting distant and preoccupied lately and blames it on overwork, but what if these long hours at the office are just a cover- up for an affair?”
By the time you get home you can no longer contain your rising panic and angrily confront your partner. The result is a nasty fight. As you settle for a sleepless night in separate bedrooms your thoughts continue to spiral out of control: “What if this is the end? I’m going to end up alone. I’ll never find someone to truly love me. Maybe I’m just not lovable.”
Has something similar ever happened to you? Have you overreacted to an uncertain situation before? Have you ever let a negative thought get twisted into a worst-case scenario?
Why You’re Overreacting
Overreacting to stress with negative thought patterns – jumping to conclusions, what-if thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, over-generalization, perfectionism, or catastrophizing – is one of the many symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately, once negative thinking becomes a habit it traps you in an anxious response to life’s inevitable challenges.
Being anxious means that you worry about things more than necessary and fear problems that may not even exist. It means having irrational thoughts, predicting disastrous scenarios, or imagining hostile intentions of others, all of which may be completely out of proportion with reality. Although you are facing no real danger at the moment, your body will be reacting as if you are in the path of a tsunami and may trigger your fight-or-flight response to protect you. No matter how it started, your overreacting has put your mental and physical well-being at stake. But you don’t have to let it get that far.
Staying Centred, Grounded, and Calm
Life is a gift. And chances are that at any given moment you have countless things to be thankful for. But getting caught up in anxious thoughts will rob you of that perspective and subsequently of your contentment and peace. How can you correct your reactions and stay calm, grounded, and centred?
First of all, you must learn to catch yourself when you start down the road of scary scenarios. Sometimes a simple question: What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation? may bring the awareness that your thoughts are just that – thoughts rather than solid reality. They may or may not be true. They may or may not be helpful in dealing with the situation at hand. Be mindful and ready to pull yourself back to the present, so that your thoughts don’t sweep you along to irrational future scenarios. Mark Twain once quipped: “I’ve dealt with many tragedies in my life; most of which never happened.”
Relax. Overreacting triggers a release of a cocktail of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Specific relaxation techniques can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps lower your stress hormones and will calm you down. Try such things as deep, slow breathing; listening to soothing music; spending time in nature; playing with your pet; visualisation of peaceful settings; or progressive muscle relaxation. Put on a smile even if it feels fake. A smile sends a message to your brain that all is well and you are safe.
You magnify your unhappiness by judging yourself for being unhappy. Look at yourself with compassion, not with judgement. Accept your negative thoughts and feelings for what they are. You cannot change how you feel but you can learn to tolerate difficult feelings. And you don’t have to act on them. You can choose actions that will bring you closer to your cherished goals.
Balance your thoughts and emotions by keeping focused on facts. Reflect on how likely it is that your thoughts are actually true and plausible. Ask yourself: Is there really a good reason for me to overreact? What evidence is there that my thoughts are true or will come true? What proof do I have to support this conclusion? Counter your overreaction with realistic truths, replacing your irrational and negative thoughts with more positive and logical ones. And even if you conclude that your fears are realistic and you are likely to suffer a serious setback, remind yourself that you are resilient and have handled many difficult situations before. Remember silver linings and how good things sometimes happen as a result of seeming disasters.
Lastly, remember that there are things you can do daily to help prevent your overreacting. The acronym HALT is a good reminder that overreactions are more likely to happen we are: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Simple measures, like healthy eating, exercising, getting enough sleep, meditation, and spending time with people who care about you can help you maintain good health – physical and mental.