We all know at least one person who overreacts all the time (even when there is absolutely no reason to be mad).
And if you’re reading this, you definitely know one.
It can be frustrating to deal with people who overreact — at work, in relationships, and in life in general.
But it’s quite common. So we must learn to deal with them in a way that doesn’t lead to further anger or negative energy.
Why do some people overreact?
We’re all different, we all have a different story and personality — and there are many possible reasons why some people tend to overreact.
These are the ones that come to mind. In no particular order:
- Subconscious imitation. Or “mirroring”. Or learned behavior. Whatever you want to call it. They may have grown up in an environment where other people (e.g. their parents or relatives) would overreact, and learned to do the same without realizing.
- Stress and tension. People who overreact may do so when they’re going through a time that’s especially stressful (whether the stress is caused by their circumstances, or simply their own unhelpful thoughts). Naturally, tension builds up and overreacting may be a way to release it.
- Genetics. If someone tends to have a temper, is that caused exclusively by their thoughts? Can, say, meditation, fix it? Or is it in their DNA as well? There is no clear answer, but there are studies suggesting that traits like aggressiveness are, in fact, highly heritable.
- They think it works. Say someone has overreacted over and over again throughout their life. Over time, their brain may have learned that overreacting is efficient, because after all it does make them feel better, and it does affect others. So why bother trying to behave in any other way?
How to deal with overreacting people
Alright, these are five practical tips to keep in mind if you ever have to deal with people who tend to overreact no matter what happens.
1. Remain calm
First and foremost: your energy is contagious.
Let’s say a negative person is sitting next to two or three people who have a positive mindset.
Usually, after a few minutes, there are only two possible reactions: either the negative person feels calmer or better, or they go and sit somewhere else.
If you don’t believe me, then just pay attention to the way people behave in a similar situation. Most of the time that’s really what happens.
Now, the same is true when dealing with people who overreact.
If you’re the type who’s naturally calm and keeps their cool, it’s going to be way harder for the other person/people to overreact because that energy would not match yours.
By contrast, someone who tends to overreact and is surrounded by people with the same attitude is much more likely to overreact.
2. Say you understand them
People who overreact may simply feel misunderstood.
Even if you think their reaction is just… insane, try to at least show empathy, and use words that can make them feel understood.
- It’s frustrating that…
- I can feel…
- I know that…
- So you think… (repeat what they say)
- This must be…
Although technically you may be right if you use statements that are the opposite of what they say, it’s just not going to work, especially during the overreaction.
3. Be assertive, not confrontational
There are times in which the person’s overreaction doesn’t really affect you, at least in the sense that they don’t overreact at you.
Now, if the other person shows anger and that anger is directed toward you, that’s when you need to be assertive and set clear boundaries.
But… being assertive does not mean being confrontational. At all.
By being confrontational, essentially you’re putting yourself on the same level as them — it’s like a fight.
Assertiveness, on the other hand, puts you on a different level. By being assertive, you let them know what is allowed and what is not allowed.
You set boundaries, but refuse to be emotionally involved. This gives you power.
4. Know it’s not your problem
I think we’ve all been there.
Someone overreacts and we start thinking in circles. Was it my fault? Did I do anything wrong? Perhaps I should/shouldn’t have said this…
And so on. If you let those thoughts consume you, it just never ends. You could spend days agonizing over the overreaction, while the other person sleeps well at night.
So please keep in mind: it’s not your problem; it’s not your fault. Even if your words/behavior could have been different.
Think: had it been someone else, had you talked to someone with a different attitude, would the reaction have been the same?
Most of the time, the answer is a clear no. Respect yourself and don’t waste a single second on this.
5. Identify their triggers
The last tip is to try and see triggers, or patterns, that lead to people overreacting.
This is true for both a specific person and people in general.
Although people who tend to overreact just… overreact in general, they rarely do it “out of the blue”.
Their triggers may be external or internal, but they’re usually recognizable. Here is a list of possible triggers — have a look and see if any of them applies to someone you know.
Notice how some of them are linked to survival, and the “animal” part of the brain.
Yes, we have evolved, but our brain is still quite old; it’s not like there are software updates. We still have an animal brain.
Common triggers for people who overreact
- Feeling threatened. Obvious one. Someone feels threatened, and they go mad. But it’s not as obvious if the person identifies with, say, a certain view or idea, and that idea is attacked. If the person is identified with the object that’s threatened, they may react as well.
- Fear or panic. Anger is usually caused by fear. Someone who is not afraid, someone who is in a position of power (in the sense that they cannot be attacked or affected) will rarely react with anger. Overreaction can be caused by fear and a sense of powerlessness.
- Hunger/exhaustion. In my articles about panic attacks I have explained that although panic is mainly caused by your own thoughts, your physical state does play an important role as well. Overreacting is the same — tiredness, hunger, stress, physical pain, lack of sleep can all contribute to it.
- The wrong people. I already mentioned that people’s attitude and energy are contagious, so guess what, if someone who tends to overreact spends time with people who also tend to overreact, that’s a potential trigger. More of the same energy is like fuel.
- Direct criticism. When you don’t agree with someone, try not to criticize them. Meaning: instead of saying, for example, “I don’t like you”, try and say “I don’t like your behavior” or “when you do X, I feel…”, and so on. Indirect criticism isn’t perceived as an attack, and overreactions are much less likely.