We have all been there. Somebody cuts you off in traffic, or steps on your toes in the subway. Your first instinctive feeling is the one of threat. The part of your brain that is in charge of avoiding harm sends fight or flight signal to your body. Your muscles tense, and your reaction is instinctive and emotional. You’re defensive and aggressive. And your judgment is clouded.
This is what it means to be reactive. Our emotions take on the central role and body follows with the appropriate reaction: heart bets faster, face turning read, and we feel heat rising up.
When we react it is because we feel threatened, uncomfortable and at disadvantage. We feel our boundaries are violated. We are then driven by emotions and we lose control. And it is when we lose control that we give all the power to the other side. If anything anyone says or do can provoke a reaction from you it means that one is in control (of you and your reactions).
The part of our brain that reads into otherwise harmless situations as threatening is a relic from the time humans lived in caves and were in fact quite often in life-threatening situations. Nowadays we don’t have much use of it since we are not chased by carnivorous beasts on daily basis, but this part of our brain activates whenever we are irritated, confronted and pressured reading these situations as dangerous which unfortunately is way too often.
It is also a relic from our earliest childhood where we depended on others for survival and our interpretation of any situation was heightened. Since now as grown adults we have no use of it anymore it is time to leave it behind because it is most literally bad for our health: it rises out blood reassure and the level of stress hormones which in turn drain our body of energy and weaken our immune system.
How to be responsive?
Unlike reactiveness which is instinctive, the responsiveness is a conscious choice. To be responsive requires from us to first become mindful. Being mindful further more means being aware and making conscious and meaningful decisions/response.
Firstly we have to become aware of our initial feelings after some triggering situation occurs. Our body is going to react involuntarily to those emotions and we have to become aware of that bodily reaction and most importantly of the feelings provoking that reaction.
The very next thing to be done is to NOT react. The goal here is to give ourselves time to step back and engage our higher consciousness, our socially adapted brain and advanced intelligence in order to give conscious, meaningful response and take the best course of action.
The basic steps to help you turn from reactive to responsive human:
- Stop! – Whatever you were about to do – don’t! Just stop and…
- Breathe – the instant external stimuli occurs, deepen your breath. Focus on your breathing. Get all thoughts out of your mind and just think of your breath. That will reduce your bodily reaction and release a bit of tension.
- Take a step back and engage your advanced mind to perceive the situation
- Think of the best response possible
Since learning to be responsive instead of reactive (that I very much am/was) is still new and quite hard for me instead of steps 3. 4. and 5. as a way of responding I just put on a nice, enigmatic Mona Lisa smile and I don’t say a thing (if situation does not call for verbal response).
Try the same approach if you get too emotional and find it hard to think at all. For me the approach is to first stop any kind of reaction and once non-reaction comes natural to me I will go to the next level – finding the best possible response.
Once we learn not to react to certain stimuli regardless of the emotions they provoke, it will take a certain amount of repetitions of the similar situation – stimuli + emotions = non-reaction for our brain to rewire and for us to stop feeling those specific emotions all together when certain situations occur.
It is a continuous learning process, a try and error practice but it is the only way to make the best out of who we are and can be. Luckily, we are faced with irritable situations and bothering external events on hourly basis which will give us plenty of opportunities to perfect our skills.