‘My girlfriend overreacts to the least little thing,” the young man confided in my office. “She worries if I don’t immediately return her phone calls. She breaks into tears if dinner doesn’t turn out as she planned. I love her. She’s tender and caring. But everything is such a production!”
This mountain-out-of-a-molehill woman doesn’t mean to create unnecessary strife and drama. Her intentions and devotion are beyond reproach. Still, her excessive, often inappropriate, reactions are exhausting to her friends and loved ones and make them reluctant to get involved in her projects or events.
Overreactors tend to be anxious, fretful people for whom the tiniest mishap elicits an earth-shattering response. They’re also emotionally inflexible. They have trouble adapting to minor changes. They’re easily overwhelmed by life’s minor curve balls and fall to pieces when things don’t go as planned.
Stress exacerbates the problem. The more these individuals have on their plates, the more likely they are to snap. Unfortunately, their tendency to exaggerate expands the smallest issues to Herculean proportions, adding to their sense of overload and their inability to cope.
Overreaction is made worse by faulty thinking. A seemingly neutral event is infused with negative messages that trigger excessive, inappropriate self-talk and behavior. For instance, if the bank fails to record a deposit, a less reactive person might shrug and say, “I need to call the bank and have this taken care of.” An overreactor would tell themselves, “This is ridiculous. I don’t have time to deal with it now. Why do I have all the bad luck?”
Overreactors have little insight into the cause of their outbursts. Instead, they’re quick to blame others when agitation levels soar. “I wouldn’t have to yell like this if you were more careful with our cars!” a husband scolded his wife after she’d left dirt on the carpet of their Audi.
Other people may indeed contribute to the problem. But overreactors’ irrational, exaggerated meltdowns interfere with the problem-solving process. When insignificant events are blown way out of proportion, people feel less compelled to pull together as a team. They become resentful if they’ve been wrongly accused. They eventually tune out the drama and the rantings and distance themselves further from the melee.
Of course, each of us is guilty of overreacting now and again. We may be tired or under excessive stress. We may simply say or do the wrong thing. Chronic overreactors do it as a habit that seriously affects their happiness and those they love.
Tips for dealing with overreactions
Wondering if you’re guilty of overreacting? Ask yourself the following:
• Do friends or loved ones frequently have to tell you to calm down?
• Do you feel stressed by minor events?
• Do you often tell yourself that things are awful?
• Do you have trouble quieting negative thoughts?
• Does your life feel overwhelming, even when it’s relatively calm?
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, your over-reactions may be interfering with your life. But don’t worry. There’s plenty you can do to reprogram yourself and keep molehills the size they belong:
• Catch yourself in the act. Notice when you start to have a hissy fit. You get anxious, and your thoughts start to race. Pay close attention to these signals and determine when they’re most likely to occur.
• Count to 10 before you open your mouth. Take some deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and hands. Allow yourself a few seconds of quiet before you respond to an unnerving situation.
• Keep things in perspective. Ask “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Most likely it’s an inconsequential outcome that you could easily handle if you were calm.
• Keep stress levels in check. You’re much more likely to overreact when you have too much to do. Analyze what you can let go of. Keep expectations to a minimum. Get adequate rest. You’ll feel more balanced on a daily basis and be more ready for those inevitable snafus.
• Laugh. Life just isn’t that serious. There’s plenty to make you chuckle. Find what’s funny in each scenario. If there’s nothing, crack a joke or do something silly. You’ll enjoy the frivolity and feel a lot more relaxed.
• Look at the bright side. Put on your rose-colored glasses. Things are probably better than you realize. Focus on what’s working in your life to keep your reactions the size they belong.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com