Responding vs Reacting - how your unconscious mind could be preventing you from reaching your goals

Each time we come across a new situation in life, we have two choices: to react or to respond. Sometimes these two choices can seem very similar, but in the world of neuroscience they can lead to very different results. I'll explain more about this after I've explained the concept in more detail below.

Say for example your child has just dropped a bowl on the kitchen floor after getting a snack. If you react, you become angry, maybe raise your voice, ask the child questions such as "what have you done that for?" and potentially cause the child upset. Ultimately, before we even look at the neuroscience behind this, you've worsened your relationship with the child and both of your moods. If you respond, however, you take a moment to consider and look at the situation from a distance. You would consider the bigger picture by checking that the child was not hurt, upset, etc. You would encourage the child to help you clean up the spilled food and discuss ways calmly to prevent this situation from arising again.

Responding is the way we want to handle these sorts of situations. I'll be going through some tips to follow once I've explained the neuroscience. When we react, what our unconscious mind is doing is protecting us, we're in 'survival mode'. Your unconscious mind takes over and increases your heart rate, releases adrenaline and everything else you need to get through this, which is where the sudden emotions can come from. When I'm delivering workshops to children, we call this our meerkat brain (the specific part of the brain is your Amygdala). This isn't a reaction we want to turn off - if you were actually in danger, you'd want your Amygdala to work in this way. However, when we react more than we respond, we're allowing our unconscious mind more control over our bodies and this can be more detrimental in the long term.

When your unconscious brain is given too many opportunities to take over, it can hinder your ability to be rational, to make decisions, to prioritise or get things done. This means that the more times we let our brains react in situations like I mentioned above, in the long term we are hindering our conscious mind's abilities to align us with our future goals and plans. The more time we give our unconscious brain, the more it will pull you away from scary, new experiences that actually could work out better for your future.

Here's my top tips on making sure you are more responsive than reactive:

  1. Mindful - step back from the situation and understand your trigger and your emotional response

  2. Removal - if the situation or response is too overwhelming, consider removing yourself from the space temporarily to revisit step one

  3. Consider - develop a response that is intelligent, compassionate, will strengthen your relationship and help both parties learn something

Try to keep this in mind the next time you are in this sort of situation - it could be doing more damage than you think!


Psychology Today

Zen Habits

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