Reacting or responding?

Your choice to react or respond can affect your health and your spirit

There she was: one hell of a big brown bear. At least I assumed it was a ‘she’ since I didn’t want to be caught between her and any cubs that may be hanging around. She was busy gorging herself on some unseen bush about 15 feet in front of me and my dogs were enthralled with a ground squirrel that had just disappeared into the Earth. None saw the other.

In one of those ultra-calm moments, I slowly walked toward my dogs and attached their leashes to their collars. The entire time I kept my eyes on the big bear that was close enough to lurch toward me and tear me to shreds. Slowly I walked backward with the dogs, distracting them with a quiet pat on my legs. We walked slowly in reverse until I was sure we were out of view of the mama bear. Then, we took off. And by took off, I mean we ran full speed up the mountain toward my house. It’s a steep climb and one of my dogs was having a hard time with his arthritic legs, knees and the altitude. Still, we didn’t stop till we got home and locked inside. Then, the panic of the situation kicked in and I collapsed in relief on the porch.

This story jumped into my head this afternoon as I pondered a question from a reader on my Facebook page. Karl was responding to a post about living in the present moment and my advice to “react only to what you are seeing in your present experience and let the rest fade away.”

Karl’s question: “how about responding instead of reacting? Big difference.” It is a big difference, as long as you’re not splitting literary hairs. I immediately understood Karl’s question and felt the validity of his response. All too often we do react instead of respond to events in our lives and the variance can make a big change to our bodies and our spirits.

In my bear encounter above, I realized I responded before I reacted. Yes, I did do both and a look at the small differences between the two responses showed me how a slight change in mental and physical behavior can determine a completely different outcome. For me, that outcome meant safety, although you can substitute a number of different words: health, aliveness, survival, happiness.

Most of us spend a considerable amount of time reacting to life. We react to things we hear, see, experience and even react to things we imagine. Reacting is instinctual, automatic. Its primary job is to make the body move when the subconscious perceives threats. You react to a speeding car coming down the street. You react to the sound of a balloon popping. It allows our automatic nervous system to react on our behalf without having to think about it.

Responding is much more thoughtful, present and calculated. Responding is a choice. You get to choose a response. You get to choose NOT to respond. Responding is the result of the intellect and conscious mind making a decision to do, say or act in a particular way.

There’s a reason to know the difference between these two actions. Responding opens up options while reacting gives you limited choices. Learning to respond when you would normally react is a skill that gives some good payoffs. Look at my bear story, for example.

Since reacting is usually involuntary, I could have let my body take over at the first sight of the bear; that is, I could have reacted. Had that been the case, I may have made a lot of noise or quick sudden movements that could have alerted the bear to my presence. This in turn could have caused her to come after me, turn and run away, or alert the dogs to her presence, causing more problems. Instead, I chose to respond, calmly thinking through my options. I slowly got the dogs leashed and out of the way allowing us a smooth, easy escape. I did, however, react once I was out of view and ran like hell. Reacting first could have been fatal had there been a cub in the vicinity.

This is obviously a dramatic example of reacting versus responding. But we do this same thing every day when we live in our minds instead of the present moment. My guess is a lot of us do this frequently when we get an unexpected bill in the mail. Quickly, our minds turn to panic: how am I going to pay for this? Where is the money going to come from? What if I can’t pay the bill? These kinds of reactions force the body into fight or flight mode. We’re then filled with stress hormones since the physical body can only react in the present moment. If, instead, we choose to respond to that unexpected bill, we keep the stress hormones to a minimum and allow our conscious mind, intellect and inner self to look at other options.

Throughout the day our “future thoughts” and “past regret thoughts” can force our body into these same kinds of reactions. The result of this kind of reaction is an elevated level of stress hormones and unnecessary taxation of the body and mind.

Teaching yourself to respond rather than react takes practice—gentle practice. The easiest way to begin this change is to become aware of your thoughts. When you find yourself daydreaming or lost in thought, check-in with your body. Are you tense? Is your heart rate elevated? Is your mind beginning to race? If so, you’re emotionally reacting to your thoughts and it’s a clue to consciously shift your thoughts to a more positive and calming direction.

As you become aware of your thoughts and learn to shift them in a new direction, you can then move into situations that normally cause a reaction. You’ll need conscious discrimination here as you want to allow your body to react in situations where you need to react, i.e. when physical danger is present. But when you find yourself ready to haul off and scream at your co-worker for a stupid decision, you can catch yourself and consciously choose to respond.

In responding, it’s important to remember to honor your emotions. Yes, you may be angry with your coworker and that’s fine. You may even choose to yell at her for the mistake. But if you allow yourself that split second to bring conscious awareness to your own thoughts and feelings, you can direct your actions (speech, thought or otherwise) in a more positive outcome for both of you.

One small tip I’ve gleaned through practice is to bring my awareness back to my physical body when I feel like I’m beginning to react. When I become aware that my thoughts are going to take an idea and run with it (I’m going to scream at my co-worker), I try to find something to grab onto like a chair or doorframe. I then force myself to feel what’s in my hand: the cold steel of the frame or the fabric of the chair. Sometimes that little bit of sensation awareness can shift my mind out of reaction mode and buy myself some time to respond appropriately. It’s a small step, but it can help.

Taking those few moments and changing your response can help decrease your stress and open your mind to new options. Remember, if you don’t need to react in the present moment you can choose to respond or not. You have a choice.

This process takes discernment. It takes practice. And it takes a willingness to direct your thoughts and body into purposeful action. It seems like such a trivial point but the results can help take your consciously-created life in a new, positive direction.

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. allison
    Jun 01, 2012 @ 15:54:55

    This is exactly what I’m working on right now – reacting or responding. It takes vigilence! In the co-worker example above, I would also try to figure out (at that time, if time allowed, or later) what brought the experience to me in the first place. I recognize that I am an equal player in the drama as the co-worker who screwed up. I would also give myself huge credit (later) if I thoughtfully responded, or would gently (hopefully!) instruct myself to do better next time if I instead reacted.

    Realizing that my life is ALL about me, the me I’m creating and growing, helps.

    Even saying all that, if I was walking in the woods with my dogs and came across a huge brown bear, I think my first reaction would be to do what bears do in the woods!!! Way to keep your head, Chris!

    Reply

    • Honor Your Spirit
      Jun 01, 2012 @ 16:39:36

      So in other words, “does a bear respond in the woods?”

      Good thoughts, Allison. Understanding why we react or respond is certainly the next step and helps us prepare for the next time. For me, being aware of my choice to respond (instead of react) has been the tip of the iceberg.

      Reply

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