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Responding VS Reacting

The difference between responding and reacting in stressful situations can be profound.

The difference between the two lies in a deep breath, a pause, or a brief moment of mindful presence. That moment can mean the difference between sending the entire situation or relationship soaring to greater heights, or falling down a slippery slope.

Let’s take a closer look at what the phrase respond vs. react represents, and learn some tools to help you respond to life’s circumstances – even when you’re triggered by stress – in a way that serves your well-being and everyone around you.

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Reactions are instinctual and stem from the subconscious mind. There’s no filtering process when you react in a situation – you’re running on auto-pilot. When you react, you do and say things without thinking first and don’t consider the implications of what you do or say – you just act. Reactions are like a puppy who hasn’t been trained. That untrained puppy is going to bark at every dog it sees, jump at every passing neighbor, and then he’ll eat your dinner ... as soon as he sees it.


Responses are more thoughtful. When you respond, you might first explore in your mind the possible outcomes of your reply before speaking or acting. You may weigh the pros and cons and consider what would be best for yourself and others in the situation. Responses are more like the well-trained and well-behaved dog who comes when you call him, barks only when there’s a reason to bark, and waits patiently for his treat.

Being mindfully present when responding, means you can notice when something triggers you, and you continue to observe yourself as you have an emotional response to the situation. You are able to distance yourself from the experience and watch your mind react to it.

Take the Space When You’re Triggered

Adding that pause – that layer of observation, space, mindfulness, or whatever you want to call it – to the moment when you notice you’re triggered can mean the difference between strengthening or breaking a relationship. Or the difference between a child, colleague, employee, or neighbor walking away feeling supported or disregarded. That space could mean a few deep breaths as you allow the reaction to fade and invite your balance to return. Or, it could mean taking a day or a week to cool down and reduce the charge of your emotional response. Every person and every situation will require a different way of doing this.

Taking some space when you’re triggered gifts you the time to make a conscious decision on your next step.

Have you ever acted on your anger, said something you didn’t mean, or did something you later regretted?

If you answered Yes to the previous question, have you ever experienced anger that faded with time, where after you stepped back, you no longer felt the charge? (If you answered No to the previous question, I want to know your secret...)

The reason most, if not all people answer Yes, to that second question is because for most of us, emotions aren’t static ... they come and go, and our responses to situations can be greatly different from one moment to the next.

Often when we hear something that we don’t like or is unexpected in some way, the natural tendency is to get defensive or judge the situation quickly. This is the natural tendency of the human mind – to run on auto-pilot.

An NYU Study found that a person decides how trustworthy another person is – judges someone else – in as little as 30 milliseconds. This is not enough time to consciously register a face, but it’s enough time for our brains to make a judgment.

Creating a short pause before responding to the trigger can help you disconnect from those automatic reactions and change the course of the situation completely.

Here’s an acronym that may be helpful in those moments when we notice we’re triggered. It’s called P.L.A.C.E.:



P: Pause

As soon as you notice you’re triggered, take a breath. For example, let’s say you get cut off on the highway. Before you get bent out of shape, as soon as you notice your energy shift, take a deep breath.

L: Label Your Reaction

What are you feeling? Is it frustration, insecurity, or something else? In the example of getting cut off on the highway, are you angry? Anxious? Is there a pace in your body where you feel these feelings or sensations?

A: Ask Yourself Why

What actually triggered you? Was it the event itself, or could it have been related to a previous judgment you had or a common trigger? This step invites you to bring awareness to your common triggers and blind spots. Often, the emotion is tied to something below the surface of the actual event.

In our example of being cut off, it likely isn’t the person cutting you off that’s making you angry ... it’s likely that you’re going to be late and don’t have time to spare. When we get cut off ... we go into reaction and anger mode. When we cut someone else off it's because we’re late to pick up the kids or late to a meeting. We’ve all been on both sides.

C: Choose a Skillful Response

This is a critical step – it’s where all the magic happens in the process. As you take that step back, consider ... what matters most in this situation? What is my goal? And how can I respond in a productive way – a way that will move me closer to my goal? In our example, the most important thing is likely to arrive at your destination safely, and the best way to respond is most likely to let it go and keep yourself collected and attentive for the drive.

E: Empower Yourself

Empower yourself to move forward from that place of awareness so that you can invite a healthier, more ecological outcome for yourself and everyone involved. You are building your self-reflective capacity – strengthening those muscles within yourself to respond with purpose.

But let’s be honest: This is not easy and it takes practice. It’s impossible to be unreactive 100% of the time.

The goal is to decrease the amount of time you are reactive, and recover your centeredness more quickly. It’s helpful to know you WILL go into auto-pilot at times, and this is ok. The faster you can acknowledge when you’re triggered, the faster you’ll be able to regulate your nervous system, and get yourself back on track.

As with anything in life, it takes practice. Learning to respond vs. react is a continual process that gets easier over time. Rick Hanson is well-known for the phrase “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In this context, what it means is that the more you can practice being calm and nonreactive and the more you invite responses rather than reactions and the better at it you become.

When we are not present and when we are stressed out, we are caught up in it all, and it’s more difficult to choose our response. We lose the boundary of our inner landscape with what’s happening externally and the context around us. When you are mindfully present, you have access to the space between the trigger and the response.

This is what this famous quote is referring to –

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~Author Unknown.

The bottom line is, you have a choice. In stressful situations, you can either respond or react. You cannot do both simultaneously. Which will you practice choosing?


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