How to regulate our emotions when we overreact to external stress?
Throughout our lives, we inevitably had experiences of stress. Sometimes, due to our limitations and some environmental factors, we might be traumatized by these stressful incidents. As a result, we might overreact in the face of future similar external stressors due to the impacts of these trauma on us. A client of mine was frequently criticized and belittled by her ex-boyfriend in the previous relationship. In the relationship, she felt herself so small and inadequate and cannot have any successful accomplishment in her career. After separated with this ex-boyfriend, she worked in a compancy as a middle-management staff. In fact, she had very good work performance and was promoted recently. In her new position, she was supervised by a very critical boss. One day, her boss gave her a mild negative comment on her business plan and suggested her to do some amendments. She became very emotional in the meeting and expressed her defensive response to her boss bluntly. Her boss was surprised by her reaction. After a while, she reflected on her defensiveness in the meeting and thought she overreacted. She went to apologize on her overreaction the next day.
My client’s overreaction is an example of activation of the false alarm in our brain and our rational brain was being hijacked and could not function well. In our brain, the amygdala in our limbic system was responsible for alerting us if any threat in our environment was detected. Its reactions was automatic and fast, just in case, we missed the chance of protecting ourselves. After being traumatized, our amygdala might be oversensitive and frequently being activated even to situations where threat are not present. When the amygdala is triggered by stimulus in the evironment that the person associated with threats, it will immediately send an instant message down to the stress-hormone system and the autonomic nervous system to activate a reaction. This process is faster than the message sent from the rational center, the frontal lobes, to decide whether the stimulus is an actual threat or not.
In normal situations, the medial prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe enable us to rationally analyse the upcoming information and decide whether we are actually facing a threat. For people who were traumatized, it is more difficult for them to maintain a balance between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex. When a person was trigerred emotionally by a stimulus that one associated with threats due to previous trauma, the immediate activation of the amygdala increased significantly and the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex reduced. This is when the amygdala is hijacking the medial prefrontal cortex. As a result, the inhibitory capacity of the frontal lobe will be hindered.
To deal with our stress effectively, we need to maintain a balance between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex. On the one hand, we can regulate our emotions so that our amygdala’s reaction will not be overwhelming and hijacking the frontal lobe. We can regulate our emotions by regular practice of mindfulness meditation and yoga to strengthen our capacity to monitor our emotions. On the other hand, we can also regulate our emotions through reseting our autonomic nervous system. For instance, we can practice abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and grounding exercises.
Even for those who are not traumatized, they may also have experience of overreacting in some situations. With the knowledge of the relationship between our rational and emotional parts of the brain, we may learn how to regulate our emotions in our daily lives. Indeed, it is important to be compassionate to ourselves when we overreact. We are all human beings after all.