Do you find yourself yelling at the TV because of something said by a politician? Maybe you engage in road rage as you drive to work because someone cut you off or the light didn’t turn green fast enough. Perhaps a colleague or a spouse questions something you did and suddenly you go into red alert prepared for a full-on self-defense attack. These knee-jerk reactions are causing havoc on your well-being and health and mostly likely impairing your ability to make better decisions.
If you find yourself living in a reactive mode, you are engaging your reptilian brain, the part of your brain that activates the fight or flight response when you feel threatened. The problem with living life continuously in reaction mode is that you end up producing stress-related hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that increase all sorts of health risks impacting your respiratory and cardiovascular system. When under stress your increased stress hormones limit your access to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for executive functioning. Executive function is your ability to reflect, process complex situations, plan, make better decisions, and achieve your goals.
This past year I have caught myself on too many occasions screaming at the TV as I watch the political drama in Washington unfold. My visceral reaction is instinctually driven by some sort of underlying fear or anger. While anger, fear, and other negative emotions have their value, (read How to use your anger to serve you ), spending much of your day in reaction mode will take a toll on your health.
Learning how to pause and put yourself into a responsive mode with mindful awareness is much more effective in terms of producing better insights, more informed choices, and favorable results thus positively impacting your life.
When you respond instead of react, you tap into your intuitive wisdom which can lead to a happier and more productive life. Click to Tweet This
Because our brains are wired to react, learning how to respond more mindfully will require new habits and continued practice.
Here are 6 habits you can start now:
1. Count to 10.
“When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred,” said Thomas Jefferson.
As soon as you feel your body go into a reactive response, disrupt your neurological patterns by counting to 10. If 10 feels too long for you, count to five. By counting you are redirecting your brain to chemically override habitual patterns and to create new healthier alternatives.
2. Take long deep breaths.
When you breathe slowly and deeply you are physiologically calming down your amygdala, that fight or flight response mechanism which rises when you experience danger or a conflict and reduces your access to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes complex decisions and sees things from multiple perspectives.
3. Practice reflection and inquiry.
Much of our emotional reactions are triggers caused by your own internal stories. Byron Katie, a speaker and author, has developed a system of inquiry called The Work which requires you to ask yourself four questions inviting cognitive reframing:
a. Is it true?
b. How do you know for sure it is true?
c. How do you react, what happens to you when you believe that thought? Find the turnaround statements.
d. Who would you be without that thought?
4. Write down your emotions and then take 24 hours to respond.
The heat of the moment may not be the best time to react to a difficult and emotionally charged situation. Often the passage of time provides greater perspective and the ability to think through different scenarios once emotions have tempered.
President Abraham Lincoln, when frustrated with others would use a strategy called the “hot letter.” He would pile up his anger into a note and then put it aside once his emotions cooled down. He would never end up sending these letters. This writing tactic provides a cathartic release of your internal turmoil and allows for greater insight into deeper issues.
In an instantaneous world, there is often pressure to respond immediately. Fight the urge to do this. Use strategies like writing to recenter yourself. Give yourself the time to identify your desired outcome and the best strategy to get there.
5. Engage in a regular mindful meditation practice.
Since the mid-1970s meditation and mindfulness have slowly gained scientific validity as tools to reduce your stress and improve your well-being.
Mindfulness can be defined as the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experiences without judgment. Research shows that a practice of mindfulness and meditation can provide benefits such as:
a. Reduced rumination
b. Decreased stress
c. Increased memory and focus
d. Less emotional reactivity
e. More cognitive flexibility
Creating a habit of a mindfulness and meditation can build your skill in responding to situations with intention rather than an impulsive knee-jerk reaction.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”
— Tao Te Ching
6. Be curious.
Harvard University psychologist and researcher Ellen Langer found that most people are living their lives mindlessly. Your habits cause automatic reactions and “you are simply not there” and you don’t even know that you are not there.
To live more fully engaged and respond to life in the present moment, you don’t need a meditation practice according to Dr. Langer. To become mindful, you need to shift your mindset to one that is curious and to take the time to notice new things.
Next time you are ready to impulsively react, stop and shift your thinking to a curious mindset. Observe what is going on inside yourself and in your environment:
- What are you feeling inside your body?
- Where do you feel tense?
- What are your thoughts?
- What is happening around you?
- What is new or different about this situation?
- What is the real issue here?
- How can you serve yourself and the situation with a better outcome?
- If you are interacting with others, what might they be thinking?
- What can you notice that is new or different?
A curious mindset will help free you from past and future thinking and bring mindfully to the present moment.
If you love apps to help you form better habits, check out these top mindfulness and meditation apps.
Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition by Ellen Langer, PhD
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
Learn how to master what is going on inside your head so that you can achieve the results you want in your life.