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When we’re not at our best mentally, certain situations can trigger distressing reactions that affect our mood, health, decision-making, our ability to get things done, and our relationships with other people.
In this section you’ll find the impact your reactions can have on your health and a four-step process to identify your negative reactions and their triggers, and how to manage them.


The impact of reactions

Learning skills to manage these reactions can improve self-confidence, relationships, and health, and reduce our reliance on unhelpful ways of coping, like drinking too much or avoiding situations that make us anxious, stressed, or angry.

Going through a period of major change in your life as well as coming to terms with prior experiences can lead to distressing reactions.

These can include physical reactions:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Feeling tense or nervous

And emotional reactions:

  • Feeling afraid
  • Worry
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Frustration

These reactions can in turn, can have a negative impact on many areas of your life, such as:

  • Drinking too much
  • Low mood
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Intense anger and aggression
  • Strained relationships
  • Poor sleep
  • Loss and grief

Learning skills to manage these reactions can improve self-confidence, relationships, and health, reduce our reliance on unhelpful ways of coping (like those above) and help achieve a far greater sense of wellbeing.

Applying a 4-step process to help

1. Identify distressing reactions

Think of a recent situation that distressed you a lot? Maybe it was distressing because it prompted distressing memories of a past event, or it involved dealing with day-to-day hassles that are very frustrating or did it involve other challenging situations, like a job interview or having to relocate.

Note down:

  • What the situation/event was
  • What the triggers were within the situation or event that you found distressing (for example sights, sounds, smells, people, conversations)
  • Any negative self-talk (for example "I'm going crazy" or "What will they think of me?")

2. Develop calming skills

Two main skills are presented here for coping with distressing reactions; calming yourself with controlled breathing and helpful self-talk.

Controlled (or tactical) breathing

When we get anxious or distressed, our breathing tends to get faster and shallower. This is a natural reaction as our body prepares for fight or flight. But in most cases, we don't actually need to either fight or run away. The physical changes that go with the increase in breathing, (such as muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, feeling light-headed) just make us feel more uncomfortable and anxious.

Getting our breathing back to normal helps to calm our strong emotional and physical reactions and prevents them from getting worse.

You can learn more about breathing here.

Calming self-talk

Self-talk (what you are thinking and telling yourself) can make anxious reactions better or worse:

  • If your self-talk is negative it will make your anxious reactions worse.
  • If your self-talk is calming and reassuring it can reduce your anxious reactions.

Unfortunately, negative self-talk can become automatic when you are distressed - you may hardly be aware that you are making your stress reaction worse by your negative self-talk.

The first step is to recognise when this negative self-talk occurs and then use calming and reassuring self-talk to coach yourself through the distressing situation.

If you find it hard to use calming self-talk when you are distressed, then practicing helpful self-talk when you are calm will help.

You can practice identifying helpful thoughts using the table below:

Negative thoughts

Helpful thoughts

What will they think if I lose it?

I'll never get over this problem.

I'm going crazy.

I'll never get better.

What's wrong with me?

No one can help me.

Will I ever stop having these reactions?

This is overwhelming.

If I start to panic I'll let it pass and probably no one will notice.

I'm just experiencing anxiety symptoms. I'll actually be OK.

This feeling won't last forever.

I got through it and with practice it will get easier over time.

With the right help, I can get through this.

I am getting better at managing my reactions.

With controlled breathing and helpful self-talk, I will be fine.

3. Create plans to anticipate and manage distressing reactions

Stressful situations are a normal part of life and can't be avoided.

Making a plan for how you are going to manage stressful situations will help you manage your reactions simply by being prepared.

Triggers don't have to cause the same reactions in you over and over.

If you get distressed, you can calm yourself down.

4. Review Your Progress

At the date you have set for review:

  • Did you try to implement the skills above? If so, how well did they work?
  • Would you do things differently to improve how you managed your reactions?
  • If a skill did not work, consider rehearsing the skill or select another skill that might be useful.

If you've had some success in managing your reactions to distressing situations, well done!

Don’t worry if things did not work quite as you’d hoped, as many people don’t succeed first time, simply work through this process again

You have taken a major step in improving the quality of your life by learning to manage your reactions to stressful reminders and events.

Learning these skills takes practice, but you will find that each time you will get a little better at it while you learn a very important lesson - that you have more control over your reactions than you thought you had.

Need further help?

Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to someone you trust.  If your problems are impacting on your health talk to your local medical practitioner, or another mental health professional. They can help you to decide what assistance you need and arrange appropriate support.

You can find more information about building resilience in the other pages in this section, or by downloading the complete toolkit below.

View pdf
Everyday Resilience - NZDF Resilience Toolkit
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