Q & A Today: Emotional Powder Keg When Angry

By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC

Posted on April 3, 2021


Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.


Q: I have a hair trigger response when feeling hurt by what other people say to me. When I start reacting in this aggressive manner to anyone, be it family, friends or even a stranger, I become uncontrollable and don’t stop. It’s a fast slide into a dark place. I get angry, stay fixated on the problem and keep complaining, even when others don’t want to hear from me any longer.


I know this damages my relationships because people tend to avoid me after our disagreements. I end up feeling lousy and some of my friends call me a powder keg. How do I keep my emotions from getting out of control and reacting so fast and extreme? – Rosaline


A: Dear Rosaline: It is important to ‘befriend’ our emotions. They’re with us all day, every day. Sometimes our emotions seem to take on a life of their own when events upset us. From your description, it appears your emotions are hijacking your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. As you said, when stressed you noticed you find yourself going to a dark place, thinking in terms of extreme absolutes, feeling lousy and engaging in behaviours that are not in your best interest.


Your emotional reactions are creating a lot of hurt to you and others, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning how to regulate your emotions is a learnable skill. It doesn’t matter how disruptive your emotions have been in the past. You can learn new skills, which I’ll discuss below, to help ensure your emotions don’t overwhelm you and others.


The first step in preventing yourself from becoming overwhelmed is to be aware of what it feels like when your stress response gets triggered. By doing so you’ll be incorporating what is referred to as ‘cognitive reappraisal’. This means being able to interpret an event and change how you react to it – before your emotions drag you down the path of overwhelming distress. This provides a lot of value for you, as emotional reactions can create a tendency for people to think their situation is worse than it might actually be, which inhibits the ability to resolve their problems.


Changes in your physiological and psychological responses incurred by a brewing conflict will give you a heads up that internal stress is mounting. Physically, you may feel this in the tightening of muscles, stomach-aches, insomnia or headaches, etc. There’s a wide range of psychological reactions you may be experiencing but some of the commonly felt symptoms of stress are feeling nervous, feeling panicky, experiencing irritability or guilt.

Sometimes people react aggressively (such as you described in continuing to argue when the other person has disengaged) or withdrawing from the person all together. The good news is that awareness of these physical and psychological changes can help change your thinking to a way that helps you control and manage your emotions.

Oftentimes our perceptions of the situation influences our feelings, and not in a good way. If we have unrealistic expectations of what the other person should do, or our thinking is too rigid, or perhaps if we are simply taking things too personally, we’ll find it creates stress. However, if we challenge our perceptions we will find we can successfully create buffers that will protect us from the negative impact of stressful situations.


One way to accomplish this is to decide to not go down the well-travelled road of negative self-talk. Negative thinking begets more negativity. It can rapidly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when a conflicted situation arises, try to have positive rather than negative, critical or pessimistic thoughts. It might feel awkward at first. But remember that you’re learning a new behaviour and change is difficult at first.


Without changing the situation, when you remove the negativity, you have the ability to reframe or reinterpret the event. By doing so, you can change the meaning of an emotionally charged event. You’ll be changing how you think and respond. This will influence your experience and enable you to avoid the downward emotional spiral.


No longer will you feel the helplessness that overpowers you when you’re uncertain how to manage a difficult situation. You will find that even though you can still get upset, the duration and intensity will be less than before. Your relationships with others will improve.

Rather than being viewed like a powder keg by others, it will feel great to have the confidence that you can control your emotions. The risk of damaging important relationships will be greatly reduced because you’ll have the flexibility to bend and adjust, instead of being emotionally reactive, when encountering triggering comments from others.

Good luck to you, Rosaline.

Wishing you well,

Eileen


Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.

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