It’s very unlikely that you’ve responded calmly to every lap in the tornado that is 2020. A global pandemic with the wildcard COVID-19, economic collapse and millions of jobs lost, a forever-long quarantine, protests working to break systemic racism—and it’s only June. And while we’ll all have some sort of genuine collective trauma to bond over someday, “emotional inflammation”—a term coined by Lise Van Susteren, MD, and Stacey Colino—can manifest in several different ways.
In their recently release book, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times, Dr. Van Susteren and Colino explain how emotional inflammation manifests for different reactor types: the “nervous” reactor, the “revved up” reactor, the “molten” reactor, and the “retreating” reactor. Each type has different characteristics, psychological backstories, and ways to remedy emotional inflammation.
Defining reactor types to deal with emotional inflammation
1. The nervous reactor
The nervous reactor is defined by fear, worry, and is most likely to be shaken by the uncertainty anxiety that plagues this entire moment. Consider that individuals who fear change have high levels of neuroticism and low degrees of openness (aka love of risk). This is literally a scenario with nothing but dramatic change in a risky environment. And yes, this reactor type might be more physically protected in a world where masks are mandatory (or at least should be for the time being), it leads to high intensity levels of stress.
2. The revved-up reactor
The revved-up reactor is a bit more jumpy or frenetic in the face of conflict. These are the people who tend to overfunction in a crisis, intellectualizing the situation at hand and working really hard to “fix” it. This could lead to not only burnout, but a phenomenon called negative urgency, a phenomenon that could essentially just lead to impulsive behavior and poor decision making.
3. The molten reactor
Then we have the molten reactor (aka “Most Likely to Be Fueled By Outrage”). Of course, anger can be a powerful, healthy emotion especially when it comes as a response to social injustice. That isn’t something you want to bottle up and live with. What can be problematic with molten reactors is that their anger leads to lashing out at people and situations who maybe don’t deserve your ire. Say, for example, the grocery store employee who said they were fresh out of Oreos. Taking a tip from the Greek Stoics and reframing your situation positively might keep a molten reactor from erupting.
4. The retreating reactor
Finally, the retreating reactor is that one person who withdraws in a crisis, unable to leave their bed, living in a depression cocoon and turning to maladaptive coping mechanisms like macaroni and cheese for breakfast and Virtual Happy Hours on any day that ends with “y.” According to Dr. Van Susteren and Colino, this style of emotional inflammation is characterized by powerlessness, despair or resignation, and comes out of a need to protect yourself. While self-care and (wait for it) gratitude practices can help flip the emotional script, there are plenty of research-backed positivity prompts that can stimulate that sense of joy and hope; seeking out a piece of good news or scheduling five minutes to mindfully worry are good places to start.
Finding what each emotional inflammation reactor type has in common
The common denominator when it comes to cooling down emotional inflammation, though, is doing prosocial kindnesses and action. Dr. Van Susteren notes that it chases our status from being a passive, helpless bystander to being an “upstander,” or someone who stands up for what’s right. Prosocial spending, for example, makes us happier than spending money on ourselves, because we get to see the joyful results of our spending on someone else. Donating to anti-racist organizations or supporting Black-owned wellness businesses is a good way to feel empowered and helpful (but if money’s tight, there are many ways to be an ally).
It’s expected to be dealing with some type of emotional inflammation right now, or a hybrid mixture but you don’t have to deal with it alone. Get in touch with your reactor type and you’ll be ready to respond healthily the next time it flares up.
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