How to Deal with Emotionally Explosive People by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D. (PDF)
“The term emotional explosion as used here covers a wide array of events that occur at all levels of intensity and for hundreds of different reasons. They can be dangerous, frightening, painful, or merely annoying. But despite the diversity’ of causes and effects, emotional explosions have several elements in common.
All of a sudden your friend’s breathing changes into ragged gasps. You turn toward her and see her eyes wide with terror. “Are you okay?” you ask, feeling your own heart begin to race.
“I’ve got to get out of here noiv!” she chokes out, and you start plotting a route to the nearest exit, hoping she can make it that far.
Disorders may be different, but explosions are the same. People are accustomed to thinking of explosions into anxiety, depression, and anger as difierent entities, falling into different diagnostic categories and requiring diflerent responses.
The closer you look, however, the more illusory the differences become. Perhaps the most significant difierence is our reaction. We want to help people who are frightened or sad; angry people make us want to fight or run away.
All explosions, regardless of which emotion is being expressed, are caused by rapidly escalating physiological arousal. The arousal is the problem, not the content There are times when it is beneficial to listen to what people have to say about what they’re feeling and why, but the middle of an explosion is not one of them.
Our first goal is to calm people down. There will be time for talking Ihings through later.
Explosions are fast. They happen so quickly that there is little time to analyze what’s going on and think about what to do in response. The speed leads to the illusion that emotional explosions just appear out of the blue and are totally unpredictable.
Not so; it feels that way, but your feelings are reactions, and as such are seldom the best indicators of what is actually going on. Understanding requires calm, and the ability” to slow your perception of events enough to see the chain of causes and effects more clearly.
This feat does not require an altered state of consciousness, it’s actually a side effect of how your brain operates. The more familiar you are with what you’re seeing or hearing, the more slowly it appears to move. Foreign languages, for instance, always sound faster than the one you speak.
Consider this book a primer in the language of emotion, which will help you understand and communicate with people who are having a difficult time understanding and communicating with themselves.
“I need to talk to you,” a coworker says as she pulls your office door shut. Her tears burst forth even before she sits down. You hand her a Kleenex and wait while she pulls herself together enough to speak. A minute seems like a year when you’re watching another person suffer. “I’m a terrible person,” she says finally. “I never manage to do anything right.”
Explosions are complex. They are composed of a number of events occurring simultaneously, at many different levels of experience, both tor the person exploding and for you. Emotional explosions are made of words, thoughts, feelings, hormones, neurotransmitters, and electrical impulses.
To deal with explosions effectively, you must consider what is being said, what people are thinking as they say it, and what physiological reactions are going on in their bodies. At first the speed at which everything happens makes this seem a daunting task. You may be surprised, however, to discover how’ much you already know.
Most of us, especially parents, are more effective in dealing with the explosions of preverbal children than we are with those of overly emotional adults. The explosions themselves are remarkably similar, but our expectations about them and our feelings of efficacy in handling them differ vastly. With adults, we tend to pay far too much attention to words.
We sometimes attempt to talk people out of their emotions, explaining why they shouldn’t be feeling what they’re feeling. Nobody would try something so futile with a small child.
I’m not suggesting that you should deal w’ith emotional explosions in adults by picking them up and giving them a bottle, or changing their diapers. I’m suggesting that you do the same sort of thinking when adults explode as you would on hearing a baby cry. Pay less attention to the squalling itself, and more to the internal discomfort that’s causing it .
Explosions are interactive. They’re social events that require the participation of another person. Even when explosions occur in privacy, the audience is there in the mind of the performer.
In a way, emotional explosions are like the sound of a tree falling in the forest If nobody’s listens, there’s nothing there but a disturbance in the air. Unlike falling trees, however, explosive people will sometimes continue to disturb the air until someone does listen.
It is not possible to merely witness an explosion.
Whether you want to be or not, you are involved. How you respond will at least partly determine what will happen. That said, let me point out that doing absolutely nothing may be the most eloquent and effective response.
Often the most obvious reactions exploding back, or explaining to the person why he or she should not be upset will make the situation worse. Doing nothing is always acceptable, especially when you don l know what else to do….”