The world functions on a cause-and-effect basis, where actions result in reactions. A relevant example for us is how a stimulus will prompt us to respond with an emotion. The stimulus could be physical, such as a hug making us feel loved or pain making us sad, or situational, such as feeling frustrated and angry when things do not go as planned. Our monkey brains are wired to rely on emotional reactions to guide our behaviour.
Emotional reactions can be useful as they are very fast and powerful. Fear activates the fight-or-flight response, letting us flee from danger or prepare us to fight. Disgust teaches us to avoid things that cause us to become unwell. Happiness and love give us energy to carry on through hard times.
However, as powerful as they can be, emotional reactions can also be deleterious. Being overly reactive makes us slaves to our emotions or can result in unhealthy behaviours. For example, reacting with rage, frustration and hysteria builds stress and makes us toxic to people around us. Our monkey brains were crucial to our survival as a species in prehistoric times, but in the modern world, it can cause more harm than good.
The problem with being reactive is that we are not acting, but being acted upon. When we are reactive, we cannot control our response or use rational thinking to solve problems. Instead, we are controlled by circumstances and conditions.
So how can we combat our tendencies to be reactive? The answer is to be proactive instead of reactive. Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
The secret to being proactive is understanding that between the stimulus and our response, we have the freedom to choose how we react.
Being proactive is an effective strategy in many aspects of life. Proactivity allows us to plan ahead and prepare for stress and challenges, letting us cope better when hardships strike. In sports and competitive games (or war), the concept of “offence is the best defence” is a fundamental tactic. One of the key concepts of resuscitation is having a plan and preparing for the worst, so that you are not caught off guard when the unexpected happens. This kind of preparedness and flexibility allow us to navigate through this uncertain, ever-changing world.
In a world full of hot takes where we are expected to respond immediately to everything from messages to tweets to headlines, pausing to think in that little space between stimulus and response allows us to access the power of higher order thinking, while letting us be calmer in anxiety-provoking situations. Overall, it helps reduce the stress and frustrations that build up in the background as we constantly encounter unpredictable changes that affect our lives, letting us be more present and content.
There are many ways to train ourselves in utilising this space to take back control of how we respond.
The first step, as mentioned above, is being aware and mindful. What emotion are you starting to feel, why might you be feeling it and do you think your reaction is justified?
Next, determine whether you have the power to change the situation, to remove or weaken the stimulus. Can you remove yourself from the situation? Can you break the vicious cycle by taking a time-out, or change your approach or perspective? Remember that our brains can easily magnify the perception of a threat, distorting our objective view of reality. If possible, take action to modulate the stimulus or your perception of it, so you don’t react as strongly.
If not, then shift your focus to how you can optimise and de-escalate the situation. Think of the consequences of your reaction, if there are any alternate ways to defuse your reaction, if you can think of a positive side or a silver lining, or if there is anything else you can do to help yourself. Instead of thinking “why is this happening to me?“, try to reframe it as “how can I solve this situation?“.
If you find that the fiery emotional reaction is still building despite this, then draw from the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer and accept that there are things outside of your control. Focussing on what you have control over and accepting that you cannot control everything empowers you to take charge of the situation. This lets you be the agent of your own response and story. Meditation is another powerful tool that helps train this approach to facing a problem.
Failing all of that, it is okay to respond with emotion. After all, we are only human and emotions are part of what makes us human. The important part is that you took action and you chose to feel that emotion, instead of being acted upon by the emotion. Indulge in catharsis and let your emotions out. Sometimes, the drunk elephant that is your emotional side just needs to vent and that is a perfectly healthy thing to do (in moderate amounts).
Don’t waste emotional energy to reactivity: be proactive and empower yourself.