Emotions swirl as we crash into others and experience. The collision creates an emotional storm, an outburst of reactionary behavior. A clasp of thunder, a flash of light set our bodies off in an emotional storm that warms and cools as we collide with the world. Our emotions are a biological construction programmed through experience, creating sensitivities, blind spots and misperceptions. Emotion primarily guide behavior, leading us towards goals and away from harm. However, we sometimes go amiss, both our hardwiring and programming may misdirect. Our emotional network may explode into an outright emotional outburst.
Researchers and psychologists commonly define emotional outbursts as a highly emotional, explosive episode, accompanied by patterns of aggressive behavior. Emotional outbursts are also referred to as “temper outbursts” or “temper tantrums.” We see these emotional meltdowns on the freeways as an impatient driver explodes into road rage, or in volatile families. Many that temporarily fell under the spell of an emotional outburst find themselves in courthouses and populating prisons. In a moment of rage, we lose sensibilities, act with impunity, and maladaptive behaviors reign.
Emotional Outbursts are highly emotional and explosive episodes, commonly referred to as a temper tantrum.
Mismatch Between Emotional Reaction and Regulation Ability
In an emotional outburst the wave of emotion outmatches a persons ability to regulate. We momentarily surrender to the impulsive rage and explode. The mismatch between emotion and regulation skills has a number of causes. Extreme stress, exhaustion, or biological underpinnings and sensitivities are all culprits, contributing to the meltdown.
In Daniel Goleman in his best seller Emotional Intelligence, wrote, “no one is insulated from this erratic tide of outburst and regret; it reaches into all of our lives in one way or another” (2005, location 251). Emotional outbursts frighten us. They are the epitome of loss of control. I lived next to a care home for a number of years. Clients suffering from an array of mental developmental disorders would routinely break down into a temper outbursts, yelling obscenities and violently throwing items and hitting walls. While none of them ever physically threatened me, just witnessing the outburst, excited my system, speeding my heart rate, throwing me into sympathetic system overdrive.
Developmental Disorders and Emotional Outbursts
While all of us are subject to emotional outburst when stress and circumstances exceeds our window of tolerance, most temper outbursts are a result of immaturity or developmental disorders. When I originally wrote this article, early in my writing and psychology career, I neglected the biological and developmental components that strongly pertains to frequent emotional outbursts. Many mental illnesses and disorders include symptoms of emotional lability. Many personality disorders, schizophrenic spectrum spectrum, autistic spectrum, and attention deficit disorders lead to high susceptibility to emotional overload that explodes into an outright tantrum.
An emotional outburst is strongly associated with heightened activation of the HPA axis. A biological process where cortisol is released into the blood stream to prepare an organism for perceived threats to survival. Lawrence Heller, trauma specialist, wrote that “massive fluctuations in the HPA axis…are often accompanied by strong emotions: rage, disgust, terror or joy and the feeling that all is well” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
“Emotional outbursts are prevalent and developmentally persistent in people with neurodevelopmental disorders, and in people who have experienced childhood adversity or trauma” (Chung, J., Mevorach, C., & Woodcock, K., 2022). Specifically, outbursts are a common and challenging symptom associated with autism spectrum disorders (Chung, J., Lowenthal, R., Mevorach, C., Paula, C., Teixeira, M., & Woodcock, K. ,2022).
Development and Tantrums
Our childhood is marked with tantrums. Our early collisions with thwarting of desires is unbearable. We are shocked we can’t always get what we want and meltdown. We commonly witness a child in their development go through the “terrible twos” as they face this primary developmental task.
In a lovely book written by Adele Lynn, he wrote, “given the normal path of development, a toddler and a teenager learn how to control impulses. As a result, emotional outbursts lessen as they mature” (2004). Most of outgrow our outburst, adopt healthier paths to regulation, and prevent meltdowns that erupt into future destroying behaviors, at least for the most part.
Justifications of Outbursts
Given normal development, an outburst should register as inappropriate, signaling a need for adjustment. However, we just aren’t logical beings. We justify, allowing emotional outbursts to become part of our normal repertoire. Our protective mind saves the day, implementing a number of defense techniques to pad the insult of unhealthy behaviors on our ego ideal.
We gain security for navigating unpredictable paths by creating narratives that suggest we have control. We believe in intelligent action. Consequently, we prefer to see our behavior as logical and purposeful: we experience something, consciously analyze it, and then choose the proper response. Judging behavior by this simplistic sequence creates a comforting sense of control. Our behaviors appear logical; we act to accomplish a consciously chosen reason. But our post explanation of behavior is often more fluff than reality, relying on protecting justifications making sense of emotionally driven behaviors.
Logically driven behavior presupposes greater control than we actually have. The prisons are full of individuals who righteously believe the appropriateness of their illegal behavior—no matter how heinous the act. They convinced themselves that their response was logical given the circumstances. While most people don’t commit heinous crimes demanding ego-protecting justifications, we do act against principles and then justify.
Instead of an unbiased investigation, we start with a conclusion—our behavior was acceptable. We then work backwards justifying the unprincipled behavior. We never consider the inappropriateness. But the behavior wasn’t a logical, intelligently driven behavior; the action was an emotional response with little cerebral cortex involvement until after the deed was committed.
We emotionally react to experience—a biological inheritance of living creatures. The emotions prepare the body to embrace or fear external events. The organism through the senses—sight, sound, smell and physical feeling—scans the environment for threats and opportunities. This applies to ancient survival in the African Savanna or modern surfing of Facebook posts from friends (competitors).
When the senses register a threat, the biological system reacts; heart rates increase, breathing deepens, muscles tighten, and blood flow delivers additional oxygen to muscles. These bodily reactions are in process when thought struggles to make sense of the input. Flight, fight, or freeze. We are ready!
The explanations we create to hide illogical behaviors vary. We devise ego-protecting shields socially, drawing from culture, family dynamics and past successes and failures. If a thought process provides emotional soothing, we implement it again—the mechanism becoming a staple of our emotional landscape. Children raised in stable families draw from a wealth of healthy responses to emotions.
Children raised in dysfunction draw from restricted and distorted examples. We are not isolated from other conditioning influences outside of the family home but closeness and repetitiveness of early family life has a tremendous pull on developing young children, securing a sense of belonging or rejection.
These volatile relationship exchanges damage closeness; the lack of trust, the unpredictable anger, and the damaging accusation drag down the relationship with anxiety.
Books on Soothing Emotional Outbursts:
Emotions and Learning
We process new inputs of experience, adapting to the outside world, forcing change on the working biological system. Childhoods and deep traumas significantly impact functioning, forming the internal protections and programing of the mind; we may be damaged from unkind experience but not ruined—the story is still being written. The whole transcends the parts (biology and history). The being rises above the firing neurons and synaptic connections.
We can direct learning, creating new helpful connections that tame emotional outbursts. New thoughts form by changing the old scripts and rewriting the tired old emotional maps that are disrupting our lives. Deep cellular memories binding present experience to past trauma may be imprecise; we can weaken these links, mitigating their power.
A person who experienced significant childhood trauma from a primary caregiver likely will associate fear with dependence, constantly seeking reassurance from companions. The slightest event triggers significant emotions, not because the incident is significant but because associations to painful pasts that were significant. The present incident vicariously becomes a significant incident, coupled with an intense emotion.
An emotionally flooded mind must confabulate logical meaning to legitimize the over-reaction, creating balance between the emotion and the experience. A partner who doesn’t immediately reply to a text message (small event) floods the system with emotion, the emotion spurred by associating the simple ignored text with past disloyalties and abandonments; the strong emotions, instead of accounting for past anxieties, is seen independently, demanding an explanation. The mind shuffles through disastrous explanations for the simple missed text.
An Example of An Emotional Outburst
Several years ago, I intervened in a loud domestic argument. One partner returned home late from work. The slight tardiness triggered strong emotions in the anxious partner waiting at home. She wasn’t unreasonably late and provided a legitimate reason. The distraught man loudly screamed, “I have to know!” His discomfort demanded unknowable knowledge that her explanation couldn’t provide. Trust was absent, fears reigned and the relationship (unless drastic adjustments to emotional patterns are made) is destined for drama and dissolution.
Unfortunately, we never know; there must be a smidgen of trust. The “have to know” mentality bypasses intimacy, rejects vulnerability, and motivates unhealthy relationship behaviors (spying). Trying to find security without trust, we become suffocating, forcing partners to soothe the chaotic emptiness inside. They can’t fill that void; it’s too expansive, requiring complete disregard of their own self. Because of this man’s heightened fears—relationship dysfunctions—the slightest stimuli sparked emotional flooding, temporarily disabling rationality and demanding outside answers to his inner-turmoil.
The only reasonable response to his emotional outburst, in his own mind, was she was cheating. Her legitimate explanation was effectively filtered and dismissed. Even if indisputable evidence is provided, the same emotional reaction occurs whenever experience varies from expectation.
These volatile relationship exchanges damage closeness; the lack of trust, the unpredictable anger, and the damaging accusation drag down the relationship with anxiety, forcing each action to be meticulously examined for the possible outrage it may inspire. Instead of anticipating comfort after a challenging day, partners dread going home, where defending the self against unreasonable accusations becomes the norm.
Stress and Emotional Outbursts
Stress, regulatory abilities and emotional meltdowns are intricately related. Once stress outmatches skills (or developmental abilities), we flood with emotion and react. In reality, it isn’t stress that causes a meltdown. Stress is only a component in a complex puzzle. Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney explain “there’s a common misperception that stress causes those kinds of emotions. What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions” (2012, location 516).
A healthy way to prevent outbursts then is to replenish willpower through a variety of self-care behaviors. Proper rest, nutrition, joyful activities, and enjoyable relationships may assist in replenishing our over taxed systems that are susceptible to overwhelm and outbursts.
Acceptance to Prevent Emotional Outbursts
We must embrace who we are; the bricks of childhood have been laid. We must stop blooding our knuckles on the walls of the past, accepting our personal histories with compassion. The past, no matter how damaging, is now the present, living within our souls. We soothe our cries of “I have to know!” with acceptance of the hurt and scared inner child. The fears can’t be permanently resolved by a partner modifying their behavior. Instead of demanding external explanations to legitimize emotions, we must examine the living energies existing inside.
With compassion, we accept these feelings as relics from disrupted pasts that are living in the present. Our work, our healing, our salvation lies in gentle moves, pushing gently to the edge and courageously implementing techniques that soothe ensuing emotions, calming the outburst and succoring our hurt. Once we calm the emotions, we can creatively address the triggering circumstances.
There are no effective shortcuts, the deep grooves of the past resist changes. A loving and patient partner helps, giving compassionate understanding to the difficulties we face, joining forces to work towards healthier futures; but changing these destructive trajectories must be accompanied with compassion, patience and understanding.
Emotional outbursts create volcanoes of disruption, erupting and directing behavior, will continue to smolder. With self-compassion, we begin the change. The hurts from our youth were not of our choosing. We endured; we survived; now we can heal. With a few internal changes, external circumstances improve, creating stronger bonds and greater security. Each step provides a more nurturing environment, opening new experiences to titillate to our senses—finally, at last, joy.
Baumeister, Roy F. Tierney, John (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Chung, J., Mevorach, C., & Woodcock, K. (2022). Establishing the transdiagnostic contextual pathways of emotional outbursts. Scientific Reports, 12(1).
Chung, J., Lowenthal, R., Mevorach, C., Paula, C., Teixeira, M., & Woodcock, K. (2022). Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Contexts Associated with Emotional Outbursts. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, OnlineFirst, 1-14.
Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition.
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Ledoux, Joseph (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon & Schuster; unknown edition.
Lynn, Adele (2004). The EQ Difference: A Powerful Plan for Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work. AMACOM; 1st edition.