The difference may not sound huge but is, in fact, vast, when it comes to what’s going on inside our brains
We all have moments when we feel put on edge, or even angered, by other people’s words or actions. Moments when you feel your blood boil and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It’s like being on red alert.
At times like these the brain jumps into autopilot, releasing fast-acting stress hormones, activating our “fight or flight” mode. In prehistoric times, this was useful – to help us flee from danger or to stand our ground and defend our territory. But, nowadays, this caveman-esque reaction isn’t as productive.
We’re all affected differently by stress, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who can become snappy. I “react”, rather than stay cool. While reacting is our natural instinct, too many of us spend our time in reactive mode.
A stress reaction is when we react automatically to a situation. We aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. The good news is there are things we can do to change our behaviour, such as learning to respond, rather than react.
What is a reaction?
When you react, it’s automatically defensive. You feel at a disadvantage and let your emotions take centre stage. You lose your sense of reason and make assumptions about what people’s intentions are.
What is a response?
Responding requires your brain to be calm. You might notice your immediate urge to get angry – but pause. You recognise that the other person may not be considering how you are feeling. It’s about taking a look at the bigger picture. This is the behaviour we need to strive for, for optimum happiness and health.
So what’s the difference?
The act of reflection is the key difference between responding and reacting; reflecting on the situation and considering your next move. Reflection can be as short or as long as you need it to be, but the key is breaking the habit of reaching for your initial gut reaction.
In situations that might require an immediate response, your reflection time could be a pause for breath – even a second or two is enough time to consider your actions.
1. Become aware of when you want to react
Notice what your stress triggers are. The next time you feel yourself getting angry, resist doing anything. Consider what the ramifications of that reaction would be and whether this would make the situation worse.
2. Allow yourself to stop
Pause and give yourself a moment to consider how best to move forward. Often, when we’re busy and feel rushed, we rely on knee-jerk reactions.
3. Try simply removing yourself from the situation
Go for a walk or leave the room for a moment.This can give you space and time to think of the best form of response.
4. Practise mindfulness
Try to find gratitude in every day. Perhaps write the stress triggers down – this has been shown to decrease future escalations. It’s about trying to slow your thoughts down and reflecting on the things you can control in your life.
5. Breathe deeply
Taking a few deep breaths can reduce stress and change the outcome of a challenging situation. It changes our physical reaction to stress and gives our frontal lobe – the part of the brain helping us communicate and consider our options – time to produce a thoughtful response.
Try this breathing technique to improve self-awareness and reflection, from counsellor Justin Lee Slaughter:
- Check in with your body. Notice how it feels to sit against the chair or how your feet feel on the ground.
- Pay attention to your breathing – especially shallow or erratic breaths.
- Inhale deeply from the stomach upwards, filling the torso. Count to three. Imagine letting go, or say “let go” as you exhale deeply for five. Repeat this three to five times.
- Notice how your body feels now. If you still notice feelings of stress, anxiety or anger, explore where in your body these feelings reside. Notice subtle sensations. Does this decrease or increase, or change, is it hot or cold?
- Imagine treating your feelings with a sense of compassion. Notice what happens if you treat your emotions with kindness.
Continue this in moments of stress, or regularly as a daily practice.