Why We Sometimes React In Ways That Don’t Match the Situation

Recently I found myself bent over in my dining room, clutching my knees, repeating over and over again, “Am I going to die??”

A current client had a husband who would scream at her if she’d make a tiny mistake, insisting she was trying to ruin their marriage.

Millions of times a day, people across the country open up emails and experience panic as they read standard communications on their screen.

A tall male friend of mine used to feel a compulsion to quickly leave the room if there were any large, loud men around.

Another friend recently began bawling not long after we sat down to eat lunch at a restaurant, for no apparent reason.

We humans often act in peculiar ways, don’t we?

But… why?

Here are eight explanations to help you make sense next time you find yourself or someone else acting or experiencing an emotion that just doesn’t seem to be in proportion with what’s going on around you…

ACCUMULATED STRESS

Sometimes, whether from lack of sleep or dealing with more than we can handle, our metaphorical “stress buckets” start to overflow. Our nervous systems get hijacked and we start operating more and more from our primitive brains, which are reactive (not proactive), which know anger, sadness, and anxiety, and which are constantly scanning for threats in our environments. A highly reactive mind can experience small bumps in the road as major mountains, and often reacts accordingly.

BELIEFS + STORIES

If you strongly believe it’s wrong for people to be late, and a friend is 15 minutes late to dinner…. you may react badly or behave in a way that confuses those around you who don’t hold that same belief. If you have a story that in order to get your way, you must use violence and force, you may find yourself getting triggered and putting others in harms’ way even in peaceful situations. To others (and even yourself) your reactions and behavior may seem confusing. But as humans, we act according to what we believe to be true — oftentimes despite the fact our actions or emotions don’t seem to line up what’s going on in our environment.

CONDITIONING

Just like Pavlov’s dogs, humans can be conditioned to act in certain ways. Here’s a common example: as children, many of us were conditioned to experience fear related to rejection when, every time we were rejected by our parents, there was a perceived threat to our survival (withdrawal of love to a young child is often experienced as threat to survival). Over time, we end up thinking we’re terrified of rejection (instead of realizing we were just scared of threat to our survival), meaning we can have intense reactions that seemingly make no sense when we’re rejected in adulthood.

PROJECTION

Ever been yelled at by an angry person and wondered what they were talking about? People (myself included) can often take unacknowledged aspects of themselves and put them onto others. Someone projecting their guilt about not working hard enough might suddenly scream “YOU’RE SO LAZY!!!” at someone else who’s working very hard indeed. It has nothing to do with the hard worker and everything to do with the projecting person not owning their guilt.

TRIGGERING OF PAST TRAUMAS

Our minds are constantly scanning for comparison material as we go about our lives. Usually, this is a great thing and helps us know we’re safe or if we need to be on alert. Sometimes though, elements of a seemingly innocuous, mundane situations can trigger comparisons to improperly encoded traumas in our minds. A smell, an expression, a word, colors, clothing — if certain elements link us back to an improperly processed traumatic experience, we can suddenly react as if we’re in danger, under attack, or needing to defend ourselves. Overreacting to situations (screaming, rage, crying, fear, terror, etc.) can actually be the triggering and reactions to past traumas, NOT reactions to existing conditions in our environments.

PAIN

Emotional and physical pain are processed in the same area of the brain. Both can cause humans to act in unusual ways that don’t seem to match up with what’s happening. Hurt people often hurt people.

MENTAL DISORDERS OR CONDITIONS

PTSD. Severe depression. Generalized anxiety disorder. For some, these conditions are beyond crippling. For others, they’re able to push through them, but the effects seep out into their daily lives in ways that may seem unusual, over the top, or unfitting to others (and even themselves).

BIOLOGY

Sometimes people’s hormones are off. Sometimes they’re sleep deprived. Sometimes they’re serotonin depleted. Sometimes they’re drunk. Sometimes they’re going through menopause. Shifts in our biology can wildly impact our standard responses and cause us to feel, act or react in inappropriate manners.


These explanations, while far from a comprehensive list, should help give you a better understanding of peculiar reactions you or those you’re with may have at times.

When these seemingly “off” reactions happen…

  • Have compassion.
  • Get curious.
  • Practice refraining from judgement: you don’t know what someone else has experienced or is experiencing.

We’re all humans, we’re messy, we’re complex, and sometimes we act in funny ways. Hopefully, after this read, you’ll have a wee better insight into why.

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