Posted in Life & Happiness

Reactive Versus Proactive

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.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Elephant Riding

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the relationship between our rational and emotional minds as that of a person riding an elephant. The rational person can guide the elephant using reins, but if the elephant really wants to go a certain way, it will easily overpower the rider. Fighting against the elephant risks it throwing you off or going on a destructive rampage.

This analogy is helpful in making us understand that emotions are natural and powerful. Fighting against emotions (particularly strong, negative emotions) can be pointless and harmful. The best thing is to let yourself feel the emotion, so that it can resolve rather than build up.

This may sound defeatist, because it feels as if we cannot ever control our emotions and we are slaves to it. However, as the analogy points out, our thoughts are the riders atop our elephants of emotions.

Thoughts and perception lead to emotions, as emotions are typically a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. For example, if someone is rude to us, then we feel angry. If we have doubts or insecurities about ourselves, we feel anxious and sad. If we perceive ourselves to be loved, then we feel happy.

And there we have the secret to controlling our emotions. We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what to think. By changing the way we think about or perceive something, we can directly influence how often or how intensely we feel certain emotions.

Take road rage as a common example. It is so easy and automatic to think that someone cut in front of us, or going too slow, or too distracted because they are terrible people or stupid. This thought and perception makes us enraged and frustrated, creating stress and sometimes even making us engage in risky behaviour such as tailgating or aggressively overtaking. But if we try to think of it from their perspective, they may be an inexperienced driver, in a rush or having a horrible day. At the very least, we can think of the times we have done the same thing to other people unintentionally. This change of perspective helps us suffer less from our emotional outbursts and overall reduces our stresses.

Take anxiety as another case, where if we stop and think rationally, many of our worries and doubts can be settled. The problem is that because we give less attention to our thoughts, our emotions take over and drag us down into a negative spiral. When that happens, our emotions override our thoughts and we powerless, feeling that we have no control over either our emotions or thoughts.

To counteract this, we need to have a paradigm shift where we know that we have the power to think freely. When we feel an emotion that we do not like, then we can approach it with mindfulness by recognising that we are feeling the emotion, then trying to diagnose the problem. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What am I thinking?
  • Why am I choosing to think this?
  • How does this thought make me feel?

The point of these questions is to figure out what thought is making you feel that way so you can fix the thought rather than the emotion. Even if you can’t, it puts you in the habit of forming a link between thought and emotion, leading to a healthier connection to your feelings and giving you back some control over them.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Broken Heart Syndrome

Countless novels and films depict a character, heartbroken from the loss of a loved one or due to a break-up, suddenly clutch their chest and collapse. Although this may seem like a dramatic plot device, it is actually possible to die from stress.

The condition, colloquially termed broken heart syndrome for obvious reasons, is known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. As the name suggests, the heart suddenly goes into congestive heart failure after sudden emotional stress. In simpler words, the heart’s ability to pump blood is sharply reduced due to muscle weakness and blood is not circulated properly. This causes blood to dam up and cause symptoms such as chest pain, breathlessness, fluid overload and much more.

The characteristics of this disease is that the heart temporarily enlarges so that the tip (apex) bulges out while the function of the base (upper part of the heart) is normal. The muscles in the apex is thinned while the base has hypertrophied and thickened. This gives the appearance of a thin pocket with a thick entrance, thus giving the name takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which means “octopus trap” in Japanese.
Given the patient survives the initial heart failure, their condition improves over the course of two months. The patient may also need psychiatric help or antidepressants and sedatives to ease the stress that led to the heart failure. 

As the presentation is very similar to a normal myocardial infarction (“heart attack”), the diagnosis may be difficult. The cause has not been identified yet, but researchers believe it to be due to a combination of blood vessel spasms disrupting blood supply to the heart and high levels of catecholamines. As catecholamines (adrenaline/noradrenaline) are released in great quantities in times of stress, this theory has some plausibility. A similar thing happens when patients with heart problems are exposed to significant levels of fear – their heart goes into overdrive and develop cardiac arrest due to an exacerbation of their condition.

The concept of dying from intense emotions such as anger and stress is found in almost every culture, where a person collapses and falls deathly ill after shocking news or a particularly stressful experience. But modern medicine has only just begun to understand the scientific reasoning behind this strange phenomenon.

It has also been noted that takotsubo cardiomyopathy tends to affect post-menopausal women, especially widows. Interestingly, most of these patients are not considered “at risk” for a heart attack and generally healthy. 
Thus, stress alone can be enough to “break” someone’s heart and cause sudden death.

(Sourcehttp://sndr.deviantart.com/art/Broken-Heart-7445432?q=boost%3Apopular%20broken%20heart&qo=0)

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