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Why We Get Upset So Easily—and How Not to

Many of us have experienced going from 0 to 10 on the distress scale in a nanosecond and seeking food to calm down. For some, it becomes a habit. Unfortunately, if we habitually use food to re-regulate or to preventively tamp down our upset or anger, we never learn effective skills to manage emotional distress. That is why some of you still fear upset and losing your temper or your cool many decades into life.

The first thing you should know is that we are biologically built to feel fear and hurt as strong emotions because they may signal that there is a threat to us in the environment. Experiencing surges of emotion can be a sign that something is very wrong, but they can also, equally, amount to false alarms. As Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess (whose column I love and quote from frequently in my blogs), describes in her column, “What you seethe is what you get” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 5/5/16, p. E55), some people “have exaggerated activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala…that basically works as a security guard, identifying threats (or potential threats).”

For some people, the amygdala is more sensitive than for others and you may be one of them if you tend to easily get rattled or fly off the handle. This does not mean that you are a bad or defective person. It simply means that you are relying too much on your amygdala’s response to guide your life. This is likely, in part, because your role models early on had similar quick-draw reactions and, therefore, couldn’t teach you how to respond more effectively because they didn’t know how to do so themselves.

Maybe your upset by your kids, or your neighbor, spouse, boss or even strangers. Or, just about everyone you run into. To manage emotional distress more appropriately and maturely, you first need to acknowledge having this problem. There’s no shame in admitting it, but there should be shame in denying it’s true just so you don’t need to change. If you tend to erupt quickly and fiercely, admit it with the knowledge that you can retrain yourself to respond more thoughtfully and deliberately over time.

Rather than eating to tamp down the fire within, you can walk away from the situation, take five deep breaths, count to 10, think about another way to handle the interaction, imagine how you wouldn’t like someone to similarly erupt at you, have compassion for the people on the receiving end of your tantrum, or close your eyes and imagine relaxing in your favorite spot. Think of emotional eating as consistently driving you away from learning the skills you need for a functional life, a dead end, if there ever was one.