Emotional Reactivity in Relation to the Onset of Substance Use Disorders

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Written by: Patrick Randolph, Ph.D.
Date updated: 6/10/2019


Those with negative emotionality are more likely to have depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia and panic disorders. There is a wider range of physical health problems, more complicated, serious and impairing health problems, greater need for health services, higher medical costs and poorer health outcomes

Chronic negative emotionality is a strong predictor of future health problems, poor management of these health problems, a less satisfying and shorter life. Persons with high negative emotionality appear to be more likely to experience many stressful life events and have less social support, finding relationships more taxing. We may frequently feel overwhelmed, avoid problems, sweep them under the rug or not handle them well, which in turn creates more difficulties and conflicts with others.

High emotionality is related to marital problems and a lower overall quality of life. Persons high in negative emotionality are more likely to self-medicate by smoking, abusing alcohol or drugs and having unprotected sex (Larkins & Sher, 2007), which increases the risk of future health problems.

High emotionality may also have similarities with sensory processing sensitivity, described as having quick, strong and deep reactions to other people’s moods and feelings, loud noises, touch, textures, taste, lights, caffeine, pain, and art.

There is research suggesting emotional reactivity can be managed effectively by developing conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is described as self-control, thinking before acting, making plans to reach goals in a careful way and then patiently working toward them in an organized manner.

Emotional reactivity and anxiousnessness may be channeled in a positive way to become more aware of what needs to happen and then making a plan to manage it. When reactivity is combined with conscientiousness, we may be less frozen by fear and more likely to channel it into more healthy behaviors, such as eating healthier and exercising. It appears that conscientiousness tends to improve with age, especially during those moments like marriage and having a child when it is important to “step up.” Research has also suggested that emotionality seems to decrease when conscientiousness is developed in the following ways we:

  1. On purpose, develop a more optimistic attitude and thought out approach by identifying problem areas (Ok… that is happening now!).
  2. Setting specific goals that require action with the help of others.
  3. Practicing and improve skills of relating with others and increasing faith that we can be more comfortable in relationships. (Best done in a low-stakes environment)
  4. Getting out of our heads by doing something helpful for others can act as a distraction from overly negative thoughts of doom and gloom.
  5. Building the skill of gratefulness on purpose.
  6. Mindfulness and compassion-based meditation.
  7. Individual and/or group therapy.

Emotional reactivity may also lessen by decreasing arousal in certain situations, developing a stable environment and a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Eat healthy foods regularly throughout the day
  3. Wear noise-reducing headphones
  4. Plan in decompression time
  5. Have at least one quiet room or space to retreat to in your home
  6. Give yourself time and space to get things done
  7. Limit caffeine
  8. Keep the lights down low
  9. Get things done in off hours
  10. Surround yourself with beauty and nature

There is research suggesting medication may also be a helpful part of the picture. Even though there are many pieces to this puzzle, the plan usually comes together a little at a time with plenty of moments when we just “lose it.” The most important thing is to remind ourselves that none of us is perfect, but we are moving in the right direction.

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