Are You Reacting Or Are You ReACTING?

Five quick self-questions to keep outbursts from owning your life.

We all react emotionally to the world around us. It’s a natural part of our survival instincts. Happiness, anger, excitement, fear, arousal, sadness, the spectrum of emotions is near infinite and while there certainly are trends and norms no two people react to the same circumstance in completely identical ways. The tone, complexion, and intensity of our responses are shaped by our life experiences starting from our earliest days and thus can vary immensely from one person to the next.

That we react emotionally is universal, the nature of those emotions is not.

The other thing we all share is the capacity to lose control in the face of our emotional responses. The more intense the reaction the more easily we can potentially be overwhelmed by them. In some cases our instinctive reactions can be so powerful they render us completely dysfunctional. Those who have suffered through severe trauma can have such intense and visceral reactions to triggers associated with that trauma it can leave them completely incapacitated.

Being ‘triggered’ has become far too much of a catch-phrase, used to reference feelings of offense or discomfort or anger. True psychological breaks triggered by trauma-associated factors are devastating, horrendous, totally incapacitating episodes. That is not to say there is not an entire spectrum of reaction intensities, ranging from mildly upset to full-on dissociative breaks, but when the strongest term for a phenomenon gets co-opted to describe all possible levels and versions it can lead to out of proportion responses to minor occurrences, or the seeking thereof, as well as a potential for the ‘cried wolf’ effect. The last thing survivors need is for people to cease taking genuinely severe phenomenon as seriously as they deserve.

Again, we all react emotionally and sometimes those reactions can be incredibly powerful and intense. It’s a natural part of how we interact with the world. The majority of us, thankfully, have not experienced deeply scarring trauma and thus have the capacity to exercise greater control over our reactions. One might not be tempted to think so looking around at the volatility and impulsiveness so brazenly on display currently in cultures all around the world but we do in fact have the capacity for self-control. We simply have to choose and make the effort to exercise it.

Reflexive emotional reaction has been a part of us as a species from our most primitive ancestors on down, a key component of the survival instinct, but it does seem to have been given a whole new level of not just freedom but encouragement. Even a shot of nitrous. Maintaining control over our reactions is not a matter of controlling, denying, or eliminating the emotions beneath them. Those emotions are natural, will always be there, and need to be there as part of how we function. Our actions we have control over. We cannot choose our emotions but we do have full power of choice over how we behave.

In the heat of the moment, when our emotions are surging at their most intense, it can be incredibly difficult to keep our feet planted firmly beneath us. Difficult, but not impossible. We don’t have to be Buddhist masters in order to hold our calm and think before we act. We just need to develop a few simple habits which will allow our emotions the chance to react as they need to but will also allow us to maintain a sense of perspective, to properly exercise our ability to choose how we act.

Take 3 Deep Breaths

Not only does this offer the benefit of the ‘count to ten’ approach but proper breathing is one of the main tools in meditative practices. Taking deep and measured breaths not only offers us extra time for reflection and consideration but it lowers blood pressure, clears thinking, and instantly decreases stress and anxiety.

When reactions flare take three slow and deep breaths. Take your time, feel the air filling your lungs from the bottom up. And for those who want to employ some of the meditative benefits breathe slowly in through your nose with your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, then relax your tongue and let the air out through your mouth just as slowly as you drew it in. Three deep breaths can make all the difference in the world.

Do I have all possible information?

In a world of instant updates, character limits, and ‘head line only’ habits we are constantly being provoked into responding with only a fraction of the relevant and important information. The less information we have the more vulnerable both we and that information are to being swayed or distorted by mere tone or phrasing.

As an example, during the Cosby sexual assault trials there were headlines circulating which read “Accuser admits to lying about assault in order to sell books” implying that this person had admitted to fabricating her allegation in order to drum up publicity when in truth she had admitted to leaving mention of the assault out of her memoir, which had been published decades before, out of fear of possible reprisal against her. One glance at the attached comments to the headline showed plenty of rage based on reading the headline alone.

One source is almost never enough. The more important the issue the more information we need and from as many different sources as possible, including opposing ones. If one source is all you have at the time be sure to at least fully read and vet it before allowing it decide your feelings and opinions for you.

Does this need a response now?

Driven primarily by social media we are at sea in a culture where anything less recent than an hour ago often gets dismissed as irrelevant. The truth is not everything needs to happen right now and just because we can respond instantly does not necessarily mean we ought to. Comment sections and platforms like Twitter depend on, and aggressively encourage, constant and instant response but just because that is how they function this does not mean we must as well.

Our emotional reactions are always instantaneous, our responses based on them do not always have to be.

There certainly are times when circumstances require immediate response but the vast majority of things we encounter in our daily lives can wait twenty four hours. Want to post a comment? Write into your ‘note-pad’ then take a look at it again tomorrow before posting it. Writing a reactionary email? Save the draft then give it another look after at least one sleep. Just image how much less catastrophe and clean up we would all have to deal with if everyone simply allowed themselves a bit of time for reflection and consideration.

Does this need to be responded to by me?

As the saying goes, opinions are like butts. We all have one. Just because something evokes an emotional reaction in us it does not automatically entitle, obligate, or qualify us to respond. Emotional reaction and relevance are not mutually guaranteed. Is it our place to respond? Do the people concerned want our involvement? Do we have anything constructive to contribute?

One of the dangers of us all carrying around our own personal news feeds is the impulse to view everything which pops up in them as personally relevant. The algorithms tailor and cater to our interests not our relevant involvement. Want to conduct a character study of responses from those with no direct relevant connection? Wonder through any comment thread in just about any comment section. Not only do so many tend to be from those with no direct connection to the issue but the vast majority of threads rather quickly end up entire time zones away from the original topic above the comment section.

Opinions really are like butts. We all have one, more often meant for sitting on than sharing. And unwanted offers to share body parts, or images thereof, is a whole other conversation.

What result am I looking for?

And lastly, if the urge to respond has survived the previous four questions and a response truly feels necessary the crucial final question we have to ask ourselves is what are we hoping to achieve with our response? The answer to this question can have countless variations but it is vital before taking overt action we ask ourselves what we are wanting to achieve so we can direct our efforts towards actually achieving it.

Our goals can be entirely personal, sometimes we need to speak up simply to do right by ourselves. Sometimes whether or not the person on the other end hears, acknowledges, or changes on account of what we say can be completely irrelevant. Sometimes the act of standing up is simply for the purpose of self-validation. And if we are wanting to affect actual change this can bounce us back to the previous questions in order to ascertain if the change we are seeking is likely, viable, or even possible.

A friend once had me read over an email he wanted to send to a colleague who had been mocking and bullying him both publicly and personally. My friend had already stood up to him directly and reported the trouble to his superiors, so the issue had been addressed and the proper channels engaged, but he had also written an email trying to explain to his colleague how bigoted and hurtful his actions had been.

English was not my friend’s first language so he was wanting some editing assistance, which I was certainly willing to offer, but I put the ‘result’ question to him first. Was he needing to speak up in that way for his own sake, to know he had at least tried to offer the bully a different perspective, or was he hoping to truly change the man’s behaviors?

If it was for his own sake and he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it if the bully failed to rise to the occasion then fire away. But my friend, a kind and generous soul, was truly hoping to get through to the man who, sadly, was not going to be open or receptive to any such intervention. Not only was he quite comfortable and gleeful in his bullying but he also viewed precious few people in the world with any kind of respect, and my friend was not one of them, making it far more likely that the email would become a source of further bullying than any personal revelation or growth. In the end my friend decided not to waste any of his caring intentions on someone who would only warp them into fuel for further mockery.

Deciding not to fight is sometimes the greatest victory.

We are emotional creatures, it is a deeply rooted part of who we are. As conscious and sentient beings we are blessed with the capacity to choose and control our behaviors. The catch is we have to actually exercise that choice and control which at times can be extremely difficult to do.

We have every right to feel what we feel but not every emotion or impulse needs to be acted upon. When the tides rise high take three deep breaths, ask yourself a couple of quick questions to help organize and analyse so you can make sure you are aiming your actions in constructive ways you will have far less reason to regret later on.

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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