Reacting Vs. Responding: Managing Your Emotions Effectively

Disclaimer: The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.


Throughout our lives, our emotions allow us to develop a deep level of self-awareness and understand other people. Being in tune with our emotions can help us decipher our wants and needs, solve problems, ask for support, and discover what truly matters to us. However, as useful as emotions might be, they can also be tricky and difficult to manage.

Some people make it a habit to safeguard their emotional health as part of their overall wellness plan, typically leading to greater resilience in the face of hardship. These individuals have often mastered the art of responding. Others may go through life reacting to the people and situations around them, unaware of the control their emotions have on their lives and well-being.

Learning how to manage your emotions can be challenging, particularly if it’s not something you’re used to. The good news is that you can change direction at any time, allowing you to choose whether to prioritize impulsive reactions or thoughtful responses. Keep reading to learn more about the distinction between reacting and responding and how you can achieve personal growth by developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence.


Reacting Vs. Responding: What’s The Difference?

On the surface, a reaction and a response appear to be the same thing. However, these words carry entirely different meanings with them, particularly when speaking about emotions. Let’s look at the difference between reacting and responding:


  • Reacting: When you react to a situation, you usually don’t take as much time as you need to think before speaking or acting. Instead, you might say or do something impulsive, meaning there’s often a higher chance you’ll have regrets later. Reactions are normally based on our past experiences and influenced by our doubts and fears. Someone who is reacting to a situation may come off as aggressive, particularly because reactions are instinctual and quick.


  • Responding: Responding to a situation means taking the time to think through its significance and carefully considering how you’d like to proceed. Unlike a reaction, a response is well-thought-out and usually takes more time and effort. Responses focus on what the best option is moving forward and typically aren’t made from a place of emotion, but rather from reason, logic, and self-awareness.


Most people’s instinct is to react to situations, as responding to them is usually much more difficult to do. It’s easier to go with our emotions than to sit back and consider all the angles before deciding what to do next. However, the emotionally intelligent individual understands that offering a response will, in most cases, yield more positive outcomes for everyone.


What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EQ) refers to the ability to monitor your emotions and gauge the emotions of others. Once these emotions have been identified, those with a high EQ understand how to express themselves and respond appropriately. Individuals with low EQ may struggle to connect with others and read situations. They may have little self-awareness and come off as insensitive or uncaring.

In contrast, people with high EQ can often read a room and build relationships with ease. They usually are highly self-aware, which allows them to recognize their mistakes and make changes to better themselves in the future.


4 Steps For Managing Your Emotions

As children, our parents are responsible for teaching us how to regulate our emotions and control what we say or do. However, not all kids are raised the same, and some never learn how to regulate themselves properly. As a result, many people find themselves reacting to situations or people in their lives instead of responding. If you’re a newcomer to managing your emotions, consider implementing the following four steps to help support healthier responses:


  1. Take A Step Back: When something upsets you, pause and take some time to think about what you’re feeling. Sometimes, your immediate reaction to a situation may not be fully indicative of how you truly feel. Take at least two minutes to compose yourself and then reconsider how you really feel about the situation. Is it as bad as you thought? Worse? Sit with these thoughts and allow yourself to feel your feelings.


  1. Name Your Feelings: Next, think about why you might be upset. Did someone say something that triggered you? Did it bring back memories from the past? Did you feel disrespected? Try to get to the root of your feelings by verbalizing what’s upsetting you. You might use words like angry, scared, shocked, sad, or anxious. Maybe you’re feeling more than one thing. Sometimes, verbalizing your feelings can help you understand why you’re feeling the way you are.


  1. Strategize: Once you’ve identified your feelings, you can begin to think about how to help yourself feel better. Is there someone you need to talk to or a situation that needs to be addressed? Some people need space when they’re upset, while others might need to talk to someone and vent.


  1. Act: After considering what might make you feel better, it’s important to follow up with actionable steps. This means saying or doing something that’s going to help. You might do something to make you smile or laugh, such as watching a movie. Maybe you’re someone who needs a bit of a distraction when you’re upset, so you choose to go on a run or attend a local event. Healthy activities, hobbies, and friendships can all be key to feeling better.

If you’re still struggling to move past your emotions even after considerable time and effort, there could be an underlying concern, such as a mental health disorder. Anxiety, depression, and other conditions can make everyday functioning more difficult. In this case, seeking support from a professional could be beneficial.


Extra Support In Managing Your Emotions

If you decide to pursue professional support and speak with someone like a therapist, they may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as a useful technique. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a therapeutic approach that helps people identify and change the automatic thought patterns contributing to their emotional challenges.

For example, if you’re feeling upset at school because you don’t think anyone likes you, your therapist may work with you to help you unpack why you’re having these thoughts. Then, they’ll help you replace these insecure thoughts with more positive ones. Instead of thinking no one likes you, you might think that people do like you and want to get to know you, encouraging you to make the first move in forming new friendships.

Connecting with a CBT therapist could be a useful next step if you find that your emotions are consistently dictating your mood and affecting your relationships and daily life.


A Final Note

Effectively managing your emotions involves recognizing the difference between a reaction and a response. Reactions often stem from past experiences and fears, while responses require thoughtfulness and feeling calm and collected. If your emotions are getting the best of you, consider implementing the four steps mentioned above and seeing if they help.

Remember that you shouldn’t suppress your emotions or lie about how you feel. Rather, it’s essential to understand why you’re feeling a certain way and figure out how to respond in a manner that you won’t later regret. With practice and support, you can learn how to engage with the world in a healthier way, which can ultimately improve the quality of your relationships and the state of your mental health.