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The Power In The Pause: React Vs. Respond

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Oh no! Is this a blog post about Mindfulness? Mmm, yes kind of.

Stop. Take a breath. Can you feel your body? …Oh good, you’re alive. Phew.

Bon Appetit.

Previously, we have shed some light on what happens in our brain during fight, flight, and freeze, as well as what happens in our nervous system.

In this post, I am going to share with you some tips on how to slow those moments down and how to choose to change those responses creating a more desired outcome. This process takes time, practice, and of course patience with yourself as well as with others. It’s taking into account how the others involved may respond back. Cause = Effect.

The body's autonomic nervous system and subconscious mind control most of our thoughts and actions. But what if there was another way to interact with ourselves and the world? A way we could look at each other and each interaction as teachers of our own inner workings? A way to train our minds to work from our Prefrontal cortex? Luckily, there is.

Reactions are the situations where we may find ourselves left with thoughts like…

“Why did I say that?”

“I am sorry. I lost my temper”

“Looking back, I over reacted”

It was the day you “woke up and chose violence”. *Insert angry cat memes*

Reactions often come with consequences and sometimes long term undesirable effects. They may not always be the best course of action; making things worse and causing an opposite desired outcome. Reacting is the easier option. It is driven by our Reptilian Brain requiring minimal thoughts, survival being its primary focus. Theoretically, we are only thinking of our own needs.

When we choose to Respond by taking a moment to PAUSE and FEEL our bodies light up with fire, anger, insecurities, fear, jealousy, pins and needles, we can then take the given circumstance and decide what the best course of action is. We take a moment to process what our Reptilian Brain wants to do, versus what is actually in alignment with our values. We choose how we want to show up, how we represent ourselves and we can align with a more favorable outcome with potentially less damage to the relationship or others involved.

These interactions may be with a loved one, a family member, and authority figure, your boss, a co-worker, a friend, someone who cut you in line, someone who “checked out your girlfriend,” the person who cut you off in traffic or a child who broke something seemingly important to you. You know the one.

Here is a personal example…

I was at the gym, I was approached by a man that I had never seen before. He suggested I try lifting with a different form to hit the entire muscle group more effectively.

Instantly, my body was hot and I sensed a rush of pins and needles. Almost like the feeling you get right before you think you're going to get into a car accident. I felt irritated, insecure, angry, and embarrassed. My inner dialogue became extremely defensive…

Ego: (Bruised and Chiming in) How dare you correct my form, I used to be a Professional BodyBuilder. I am an athlete. Why would I want to take advice from you… and who even are you? I have been lifting for 10 years. I don’t need your help.

Shame: (Hiding in the corner) Oh my god, maybe I look stupid. Have I been doing this exercise wrong forever? Am I in bad shape? He is making fun of me. I should have worn my hoodie.

Before responding with Ego, in that fraction of a second, I realized that this is NOT how I wanted to REACT and chose how I wanted to RESPOND instead. I sat in that UNCOMFORTABLE space for a moment (and trust me, I really disliked what I was feeling), felt my body, and heard what my mind had to say. I softened my gaze, I took a breath, and slightly smiled.

I could have said “get away from me, I know what I am doing” or just blatantly ignored his existence and crushed his soul with my eyes. However, when I stopped and heard what my body actually wanted, I realized that I wanted to learn, I wanted to test my ego and I wanted a human connection. By slowing myself down I reminded myself that…

1. I don’t know everything

2. You are always a student and you can learn something from everyone

3. Maybe he really is just trying to be helpful and not embarrass me

4. What do I need to learn about myself at this moment?

So, I asked him to watch me do a few reps with his correction. Low and behold, he was right. I ended up learning something and was actually very appreciative. I thanked him and he went on his way.

Another quick example…

John is driving down Sunset Blvd. with his girlfriend. A speeding car swerves around him, cutting him off, leaving John in an elevated state of road rage. John, in an attempt to prove his masculinity, feels slighted by the other irresponsible driver and steps on the gas. The two cars begin to race. Swerving, cutting other cars off, and running red lights. Meanwhile John's girlfriend is crying and asking him to slow down. John, ignoring his girlfriend, is about to get the upper hand and sees an opportunity to fully get ahead of his opponent. He steps on the gas and while turning to flip off the driver, he doesn’t see that another car has entered the intersection. John collides with this car, injuring the other driver, totaling his own car, as well as injuring and traumatizing his girlfriend. The original aggressor drives off scratch free. Dear John... Was it worth it?

So, how do we practice slowing down?

  1. Pause, Take a deep breath

  2. Acknowledge the feelings that arise, no matter how yucky it feels

  3. Acknowledge your thoughts

  4. “Surf the Urge” - A beloved DBT Skill. Allow the feelings to pass like a crashing wave. The water will settle.

  5. Understand that you do NOT have to act immediately

  6. Weigh the Pros and Cons, especially if the situation involves a person you want to keep a relationship with.

  7. Revisit the situation (if needed) and effectively communicate

Reminder: We are not suppressing our emotions here, we are just taking a step back and looking at other possible outcomes. We’re cooling down enough so that we can act with purpose and clearly communicate/express ourselves in a more receptive manner. Sometimes a fast reaction IS warranted. Such as in times of immediate threat and danger to our lives. But more often than not, day to day, we are alright. We all want to feel heard, seen, understood and validated. There are just way more effective ways of getting the job done.

#I don’t want to feel my feelings either. Yet, here we are.

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