How to Be Less Emotionally Reactive

a reactive old man

Hello my friend,

Today, I want to talk about a reactive mindset. I know from my own experience as well as working with thousands of people that it is easy to be reactive. By reactive I mean we let events, circumstances, and other people determine our feelings and/or actions and then we act in ways we’re not proud of.

My Special Gift

This reminds me of a gift that my wife purchased for me several years ago when she and our kids and been visiting her parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was excited and impressed that she had thought to bring me something special.  She handed me the unwrapped gift. It was called a Weather Rock which is a small rock that hangs from a tripod. The instructions on the base of this rock say: If the rock is warm, it’s a warm day. If the rock is cold, it’s a cold day. If the rock casts a shadow the sun is shining. If the rock is wet it’s raining. If the rock is white it is snowing. If the rock is wiggling it’s windy.

I read the instructions on the rock and, no doubt with a look of confusion, asked my wife, “Why me? Why would you have bought this for me?”

She replied, “Because it was cheap.”

I chuckled. At least she didn’t say, “Because it reminded me of you.”

But it got me thinking. How often are we a reflection of whatever is going on around us? Do we allow circumstances, events, and other people to determine our moods and reactions? Are we living more from the outside-in rather than inside-out? I think the answer is a lot.

Conditioned Reflexes

For example, if I were to say something insulting to you, you would likely be hurt and offended or defensive. On the other hand, if I were to complement you, you would likely be flattered. So many of our reactions are neurologically conditioned reflexes. We react based on feelings that get triggered by our spontaneous, even unconscious thoughts rather than based on our deeper beliefs, values, or what is important to us in the long run. This is what it means to be caught up in a reactive mindset.

Here are a few more examples. How might you react if:

  • You were to get a flat tire as you’re hurrying to work in the middle of rush hour traffic?
  • A driver pulls right in front of you without signaling as you’re driving down the freeway?
  • Your co-worker says something critical of you?
  • Your partner ignores you in the evening but “lights up” when a friend calls?
  • You catch a child lying?

Events happen and we often react in a preprogrammed, automatic way.

Pavlov’s Dogs

Remember Pavlov and his experiments with dogs? He’d ring a bell and give his dogs something to eat. The dogs would salivate. Soon the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell even without the presentation of food. They had been conditioned.

Likewise, other people and events trigger our feelings and reactions. We let the past and our programming decide for us how to handle the situations that come up. Our reactions become automatic. We forget that we are choosing.

A Matter of Choice

In truth, I could insult you and you could choose to not be offended. I was talking to a friend about this on the phone earlier today. Her son put a negative label on her and has even shared the label in conversations with other family members and on social media. It would be so easy for my friend to be deeply offended, defensive, and go on the attack.

But doing so would only be buying into her son’s point of view. She would be allowing him to define her experience of herself and determine her reaction. But, as we discussed, the important thing is not what her son said but what she really feels and believes about herself.

The clearer she is about her worth, the stronger her sense of self, the more she is able to validate herself rather than seeking it from others, the less his words would impact her. What he says and believes doesn’t define her. Knowing this, she can hear what her son says (perhaps even have some empathy for the hurt place he’s coming from) without overreacting. She can choose to respond from a more grounded place inside her rather than getting into a shouting match or power struggle with her son.

How might she respond? There are lots of ways and not a single “right” way. Most important is that she’s the source of how she feels about herself. Then she might ignore his comment. She might become curious and invite him to share more. She might clarify what is important to her in their relationship and communicate this to him.

Breaking Out of a Reactive Mindset

Getting out of a reactive mindset means that we learn to respond from a deeper place within ourselves. We want to respond based on self-awareness and ownership of our sense of self, our thoughts and feelings. It requires that we pause before we respond. We consider the consequences and what is in the best interest of all people involved.

The truth is that we all have this power. We are not the product of what happens to us but can pause and make more thoughtful choices. Lower forms of life are governed entirely by instinct and emotion. But you and I are so much more than these lower forms. We have the ability to think; not only think but to choose.

So here are some suggestions you can use to break out of old habits and patterns that are getting in your way.

1. Recognize the Triggers

The first step in managing emotional reactivity is to recognize the triggers that cause these reactions. This could be a specific situation, person, or even a thought or memory. Once you identify your triggers, you can start to develop strategies for managing your response. It’s also important to recognize the triggers in others, so you can respond in a way that is helpful and supportive. This could involve avoiding certain topics or situations, or using calming techniques to diffuse tense situations.

2. Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness.

Mindfulness and self-awareness are key components in managing emotionally reactive responses. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. This can help you identify triggers and manage your response in a more effective way. Self-awareness involves understanding your own emotions and how they impact your behavior. By practicing mindfulness and self-awareness, you can develop a greater sense of control over your emotions and reactions. This can also help you respond more empathetically to others who may be struggling with emotional reactivity.

3. Use Positive Self-talk and Reframing Techniques.

When you find yourself experiencing emotionally reactive responses, it can be helpful to use positive self-talk and reframing techniques. Positive self-talk involves using affirmations and encouraging statements to counter negative thoughts and emotions. For example, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious, you might say to yourself, “I can handle this. I’ve overcome challenges before and I can do it again.” Reframing involves looking at a situation from a different perspective. For example, instead of thinking, “This is a disaster,” you might reframe it as, “This is a challenge, but I can find a solution.” These techniques can help you shift your mindset and manage your emotions in a more positive way.

4. Develop Empathy and Active Listening Skills

Another effective strategy for managing emotionally reactive responses in yourself and others is to develop empathy and active listening skills. Empathy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand their perspective and emotions. Active listening involves giving your full attention to the person speaking and responding in a way that shows you understand and care about what they are saying. By developing these skills, you can better communicate with others and manage your own emotions in difficult situations.

5. Set Boundaries and Communicate Assertively

Setting boundaries and communicating assertively can also help manage emotionally reactive responses in yourself and others. This involves being clear about your own needs and limits, and expressing them in a respectful and direct way. It also means listening to others’ boundaries and respecting them. By setting and respecting boundaries, you can prevent conflicts and reduce stress in relationships.


Although most of us will be emotionally reactive at times, becoming more aware and giving ourselves options for dealing with it are how we become more emotionally mature. I’m hopeful the strategies I’ve suggested are good options for regulating your emotions and improving your overall well-being. I’m interested in your thoughts.



  1. Justin

    An excellent article. For those who have experienced trauma this can be a very challenging practice. I’m grateful for the specific recommendations you make to help those of us who struggle with this skill.

    • Roger Allen

      Thank you, Justin. I’m currently creating a new course on resilience in which I teach many strategies for overcoming trauma, abuse and chronic, ongoing stress. I do think many people are doing their best to become more resilient in a difficult world.

  2. Anonymous

    I read your book, “the Hero’s choice, and it has changed a lot for me. It’s still hard some days and I suck at it, but knowing I have agency and a choice, and those moments where I choose. And this is something I’ve looked into and am working to develop. Thank you for taking the time to do this and help people. It makes a difference.

    • Roger Allen

      Thank you for your comment. I’m happy to know that The Hero’s Choice had a positive impact on you. And I appreciate your transparency and vulnerability. It is a journey. By understanding these principles we can get better over time and because we’re human we won’t be perfect. It’s okay to suck at it some days.

  3. sp

    thank you Dr Allen, this was emailed nearly a year ago, just reading but definitely relevant today & noted.

    • Roger Allen

      You are welcome. I’m glad you read it and found it relevant!


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