One of the tropes I want to avoid falling into with this blog is giving vague advice without explaining how to approach using the tools I talk about. You will get more impact if I explain things in a practical sense than being theoretical. Among the best pieces of practical wisdom I ever learned was to Respond instead of React. This advice is not hard to come by, but it can be difficult to understand. Since it is my goal to provide a practical understanding on the concepts I encourage this feels like a good place to start. I find that the key distinction between reacting and responding is the number of steps it takes to resolve each specific pathway.
Most of us are in reaction cycles. For example, say we see something we don’t like, such as a comment on a Facebook post or a news headline somewhere on social media, and when we are in the Reactionary state we will almost automatically post a reply or share the headline with our own immediate thoughts. Typically, when reacting to external stimulus we often will also get a reward signal — a quick hit of dopamine. It’s all rather Pavlovian because the more we engage in reactionary behavior the more we become addicted to the dopamine rush. At some point, if you’re like me, you go out seeking those kinds of opportunities to engage in reactionary behavior. Inevitably, of course, those rewards enter diminishing returns. We begin to engage in more deleterious behaviors trying to get back to that place of relief.
By contrast, being in a responsive state requires more steps. Using that same scenario as previously described, when you are choosing to respond rather than immediately react you first must look inward. You start by asking yourself the question “Why is this stimulus making me feel a certain way?”, and you use mindfulness to examine both your mental and physical responses. Spending more time examining both types of responses will make you more aware of when they are happening, because the body likes to keep score when it comes to stress. Notice that you’ve already, just with this first step, distanced yourself from the stimulus. There’s no quick hit of dopamine and on to the next outrage. Instead, you proceed from that mindfulness into a state of consideration. Do you reply? Do you keep scrolling? If you are going to reply, then you will need to deliberate regarding the method and examine the motivations behind each method. Create distance between the stimulus and your instinct to react.
It is the same way with events that trigger us which engage our substance abuse. Think of events in your life something led you to think something like “I need a drink”? When that happened, you were reacting. Reactions, by their nature, are a Flight response because you to abdicate your responsibility to yourself to process your triggers and behaviors to get a quick and easy relief from them instead. Responses are a conscious choice to engage in the Fight mentality — not with the external stimulus, but rather with the specific triggers which are antagonized within us. By choosing to engage deliberately with how we feel, we build resiliency and begin the process of using our trauma as fuel for personal growth.
At first, this process will be difficult. Most of us have trained our brains pathways to be reactionary. You will experience resistance, and even your own internal dialogue will could turn against you. Use the exact same method of deliberate response towards this resistance that you would regarding a trigger. Slow down and feel where the resistance and discomfort is in your body. The world we live in discourages deliberation and extols the virtues of the immediate, but every time you try builds that awareness you need. Get off your own back and cut yourself some slack, try saying it out loud when you feel that resistance. “What if I cut myself some slack? What if I slowed down this time?” Do something to interrupt the reactionary pattern, so you can build up the ability to deliberate and respond instead.