When you get stressed, do you instantly boil over – and snap at insignificant things? Researchers say that people who have extreme reactions to stress, from a racing heart to full-blown rage, may be hard-wired to do it. But having a short fuse – also known as “extreme stress response” – has been linked to digestive problems, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
When most people get stressed, their heart rate and breathing jumps, their body pumps out more stress hormones, and they’re back to normal in an hour or so. But highly reactive people have a bigger, sharper response, and take longer to calm down. They often can't explain why a minor setback or a spilled cup of coffee instantly makes them aggressive and defensive, or withdrawn and fearful. And there don’t seem to be specific environmental triggers, because people with hair triggers can grow up in tense homes where they need to be on their toes 24/7, as well as in calm households, where nobody goes ballistic.

If that describes you, there are ways to keep calm, and survive a stressful situation without flying off the handle. Psychotherapist Dr. Robert Lawrence Friedman suggests a four-step method to help you "put the brakes" on your anger:

  • Step 1: Literally think or say the word, "stop."

  • Step 2: Take a deep breath.

  • Step 3: Focus on what you’re thinking, like: “I’m about to go off on this guy!” Or, “That jerk’s gonna pay for that!”

  • Step 4: Consciously replace those angry thoughts with positive ones.

So, for example, say another driver cuts you off: Tell yourself: “Stop! Making that turn was obviously more important to him than driving safely. But I’m fine – so, who cares!” Then, keep breathing deeply until you can let it go.

This deep breathing stuff sounds so trite, but here's why it works: When we're angry or stressed, our breathing changes. It becomes shallow and rapid and we’re breathing from the top portion of our lungs, kind of like hyperventilating. Also, our arms and shoulders get stiff, and we even blink more. But if you can simply take a second to focus on deep, slow breathing, it'll let your blood vessels dilate. And that boosts your body’s levels of nitric oxide, a gas that helps relax blood vessels. Deep breathing also triggers the para-sympathetic nervous system, which prompts relaxation. And if you're focused on your breathing, you're not focusing on the situation that's making you mad.

Want to get more tips for manage stress and your reaction to it? Check out the website helpguide.org.