Emotional filtering: how to avoid overreacting to social media?

Thanks to technology we are able to talk to everyone online and share our emotions on social media. It allows us to respond instantly and one should wonder how much of an advantage that really is. The speed of responding quickly can be either a benefit or a serious pitfall, an action we may regret in hindsight. The latter is a consequence of our emotions hijacking us.

As humans we have in fact two ‘brains’ operating somehow differently: an emotional and a rational brain. Our emotional brain works very fast. And our rational brain? It needs more time to get into full operation.

Emotional filtering in the eighties

Let me take you back to the late 80s.

The internet is still in the incubation phase. I read something in the newspaper which makes me feel angry.

“Who do they think they are? They got it all wrong in this article!” All kind of unkind names are rushing through my head. In my imagination I banish the author to an uninhabited island. I am venting my frustrations to anyone willing to listen to me.


Am I able to respond? Of course,  by means of right of reply in journalism if I’m mentioned either implicitely or explicitely in the article. When I don’t agree with the content of the article or an opinion I can send a reader’s letter.

I immediately jump into action. Computers are still very expensive back then and printers are mainly found in a business environment. So I’m writing an angry letter by hand. I  am taking my anger out on my pen by pressing it hard into the paper. After two pages of giving vent to my frustrations my hand starts to hurt from holding my pen too tightly. By now there are some ink stains on my letter. I had to cross a few lines and there’s far too much tippex on the sheet. It now looks like a very bad piece of art.

Writing letters

Starting all over again! This time I need to write more neatly and I need to avoid making mistakes. “Mmm, this may sound a bit too fierce. I might be exaggerating here.” I am making some more adjustments with tippex and finally, after half a day of writing my letter is ready.

All I need now is an envelope and a stamp. “GrrrR!#$%!!!!  Out of stamps! Isn’t that just typical?” And the post office is already closed. It will have to wait until tomorrow.

The next day I forget the letter altogether. When I see it on the table two days later I wonder why I even bothered writing it in the first place. It’s not much of an issue really. I dump the letter into the bin. Case closed!

This is a clear case where the lack of technology has been able to mitigate the actions of my emotional brain. Because of the slow process my rational brain had enough time to consider things and to see them into context. After a while I realised it was all much ado about nothing and after a good night’s sleep my initial anger had disappeared.

Had this letter been so important I would certainly have sent it the next morning.

What science teaches us now

In the last twenty years, neuroscience has provided groundbreaking research on how our brain functions.

Here are just a few insights(1):

  • There are two ways of thinking: the emotional brain and the rational brain. The emotional brain interprets a situation based on feelings and impressions. The rational brain will interpret a situation based on facts and truths using logical thinking.
  • Sometimes we can be hijacked by our emotions. Then the emotional brain is in charge. This is why it is so important we learn to understand and manage our emotions and impulses.
  • Our emotional brain is 5 times stronger and faster than our rational brain. So we need time to enable our logical mind to think things through and to come to a decision based on facts and truths. We need to impose that time on ourselves to prevent us from responding impulsively.
  • The Fight, Flight and Freeze (FFF) response is the fastest response from our emotional brain when we feel threathened. Fight stands for taking the battle, for example by responding quickly and impulsively without taking any rational consideration. Flight means running away from the threat. And Freeze is where we keep still and we hope the threat will blow over soon and nobody sees us. An example for this would be avoiding conflict and giving in to something, hoping all will turn out well. The automatic type of response whether Fight, Flight or Freeze will depend on how vulnerable we feel in the particular situation. The FFF-response explains, amongst other things, fear of public speaking and especially the many impulsive reactions of people on social media who regret what they tweeted or posted in hindsight.

The current technology allows us to respond super fast on social media. We have gained speed as a major advantage. Unfortunately it comes at the expense of the loss of an important emotional filter.

 3 tips to help your emotional filter function optimally

  1. Count to ten before responding to a statement or to a situation.

Build in more time to allow your entire brain to function. For example, first have a quiet drink or coffee, take a walk or do some physical activity. That will reduce the negative energy.

  1. If you feel strong emotions when receiving an email and you feel the urge to reply immediately, first write your answer in draft mode.

Keep your reply for at least a few hours in draft mode – or even better – sleep on it overnight. Then read the email again. Chances are that you will adjust the text to remove any sharp edges.

  1. When you feel angry, disappointed, or any other strong emotions in reaction to others, try to distract your emotional brain.

Call someone who is close to you, someone who is able to reassure you. Seek advice from others who are not so strongly involved in the situation to check whether they feel you might be overreacting.

Coaching can help you manage your emotional responses better at work.

Attend a workshop or engage into coaching.

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(1) Dr Steve Peters, “The Chimp Paradox, the Mind Management programme for confidence, success and happiness.”