Updated: Jul 13, 2020
The famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, once said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The ability to respond to situations rather than react to them is a hugely powerful tool which can benefit all our relationships. And the good news is that each of us have the ability to learn how to respond rather than react in our everyday life. In fact, parents and teachers I work with often say it’s the most valuable skill they learn through mindfulness courses.
So, in this article I will explain the difference between these two words and outline the positive impact that knowing the difference between a reaction and a response can have on your relationships, especially during this emotionally intense period of social isolation during the coronavirus outbreak.
When talking to my students I help them differentiate by pointing out that reactions commonly have a dramatic quality while responses are typically calm, with less emotional overtone. We explore this difference in a playful way in the classroom by seeing if we can respond calmly to unpleasant sensations such eating red hot chilli peppers.
The automatic reaction to the intense burning sensation is panic. Often students like to hop around wafting their mouths and giving a running commentary on what they are experiencing, adding drama to the intensity. When they consciously try to respond to the same sensation they remain calm. They overcome the panic by remembering to breathe, grounding themselves, and refusing to believe that they are in any real danger: the burning will soon stop.
Learning how our responses work in a neutral situation like this can give us insights and prepare us for other emotionally-charged situations such as: when our friends upset or annoy us; when our children trigger us; or the anger teenagers feel when they think their parents just don’t understand them!
These measured responses comes from the wise part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex. This is where we make all our good decisions. The problem is when we are triggered by a danger –such as the current situation with coronavirus – the pre-frontal cortex gets flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and we can’t easily access it. If we are to avoid this then we need to practice responding.
Learning how to respond helps us most in our relationships. This is where we often fall into habitual patterns of ‘attack and defend’. When something someone does or says something which triggers us, we want to hit back or react in anger or hurt. I call these Red Moments.
Now that many families are locked up together for an extended period, without their usual supports or outlets, it’s likely these Red Moments will be amplified and automatic reactions more likely to happen.
So how can we catch our automatic reactions and turn them into creative responses which are more likely to maintain the harmony in the family?
Here are some steps you can take.
1. Lower your expectations of yourself and each other. You are already dealing with a lot. Getting by functionally and emotionally is good enough in this situation.
2. Talk about feelings especially the difficult ones. Ask yourself, how do I feel? See if you can label the feeling (this is a strategy known as ‘name it to tame it’). Make space in the family to acknowledge and normalise all feelings, without blame or shame. With children this can be done through storytelling.
3. What do you need? Ask yourself ‘What do I need right now?’ Being aware of our needs can help us express them to others. This could range from: ‘Mummy needs some space right now’ to “I really need a hug”. Conflicts often arise because of unmet or unexpressed needs. It may not always be possible to meet everyone’s needs, but acknowledging them can help to soothe frayed nerves.
4. Move your body, any kind of movement, yoga, dance, jumping around, is a good way to release stress hormones from the body and activates feel-good hormones.
5. Pause and feel your feet on the ground …. so if you get triggered by a family member, simply pause, breathe and feel your feet. The feet are the furthest thing away from your flaming red face and feelings of stress. Pausing also helps give the wise part of the brain time to kick in with a response, before you do or say something that you might regret.
6. Take a break…. if the Reds are very intense and overwhelming, taking a break and physically removing yourself from the scene can be a wise response. This could mean locking yourself in the loo for a while to give the fire time to die down. When you get really skilful you will take a break before you need one.
7. Be kind to yourself, or to whoever is upset. These are demanding times so it’s normal to get upset, fearful, overwhelmed, angry and stressed. In difficult moments putting your hand on your heart area can feel very soothing and will trigger oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) Speak kindly to yourself or to your feelings. You can also model how to do this for your children. This is call befriending.
8. Rupture and repair, none of us are perfect. So, if you do lose it with a member of your family - don’t despair. When we lose it, we are often flooded with feelings of failure, shame and disappointment with ourselves. So, the first step is to be kind to yourself – see Step 7! Then, owning up to your part in the rupture and apologising for it, can help to repair the relationship. When dealt with like this, family flashpoints can offer the opportunity, not to fracture family bonds, but to strengthen them.
9. Practice generosity, if someone get upset with you, before you yell back at them, take a deep breath and try this golden sentence instead: “I’m sorry you feel bad, is there anything I can do or say to make you feel better.”
10. Permission to rest. Parents are being flooded with creative and academic things to do with your child during lockdown. Remember rest maybe just as important as all these activities during this time of uncertainty. Rest will help you remain positive and resource you to keep calm and carry on.
Finally, let’s be clear: recognising the difference between reaction and response is not easy. It takes practice. However, as little as ten minutes mindfulness practice a day can help us to develop this skill. And it’s a lifelong skill you can use in all relationships from family to friends, neighbours to colleagues, which will remain useful long after lockdown is lifted.
To learn more techniques on mindfulness during these challenging times, Mary Louise is providing a free mindfulness course for a limited time. For a deeper practice or personal mentoring, you can contact Mary Louise Morris for bespoke sessions.