managing hyper reactivity
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The Dirt

Breaking the Banana: Managing hyper reactivity

By: Emma Shandy Anway, MS LFMFT

I am currently in the season of parenting that I refer to as “don’t break the banana”!

My two year old loves bananas, and if by some twist of fate it breaks in half while he is eating it, the world will end.

Tears, screaming, and raging ensue until he finds himself back in a state of calm. 

While this is certainly a stressful experience, it is entirely developmentally appropriate, with the expectation that with time and guidance he will eventually get to a place where the broken banana is okay, and his feelings manageable. 

Reactivity is a normal human experience, regardless of age. And like most physiological responses, in the right doses it helps keep us safe and healthy. 

The issue with reactivity arises when it turns into a chronic, seemingly uncontrollable experience, coupled with intense actions, what is known as hyper reactivity. 

The precise definition of emotional reactivity is the tendency to experience intense and frequent emotional arousal. Physiologically, the body is experiencing higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol, and these stress hormones deplete your energy at a much faster rate than when you are in a state of calm.

As an adult, you may not have heightened reactivity to your banana breaking in half, but what happens if someone cuts you off on the way to work, or you get stuck in traffic? What happens when your kid refuses to put his shoes on in the morning, or your teenager talks back to you?

If the response is an instantaneous shift into feeling explosive, yelling, or taking what has happened personally, you may be stuck in a pattern of hyper reactivity. 

There are three main reasons you may be experiencing higher levels of reactivity. Nature, nurture, and current environmental stressors. 

A study published in the National Library of Medicine found there is a genetic predisposition for high stress reactivity, which in turn amplifies effects of early-life adversity. 

Additionally, if you grew up amongst adults with high stress reactivity, experiencing a norm of shouting, unchecked anger, and harsh punishments, then your nervous system eventually adjusts to operating at this level of stress.

The third main factor is the experience of constant environmental stress. Regardless of age, if you are chronically overworked, lacking in time for yourself, or struggling financially, your sympathetic nervous system (also known as fight flight or freeze) may be chronically triggered. 

If this is all resonating with you, and you’re wanting to address the behavior, the good news is  that putting a name to the experience is often half the battle.

Hyper reactivity is something that decreases with practices like mindfulness, learning how to regulate your nervous system, and increasing your ability to self soothe.

With practice and awareness, eventually the broken banana will not ruin the rest of your day.

Action Steps:

  • Watch this video to understand what’s happening during hyper reactivity at a neurological level
  • Check out The Little Book of Self Soothing from the library
  • Commit to a daily mindfulness practice
  • Learn to recognize your triggers
  • See if there’s one thing you can take off your schedule this week

More to explore

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