Understanding the meaning and distinction between compulsive reaction and conscious response is important before diving deeper into these concepts. Compulsive reaction stems purely from being overwhelmed with an emotion or an urge or desire to act on an impulse. The overwhelming emotions are not limited to anger or sadness but can also incorporate excessive joy or happiness. Overpowering emotions make us do or say things that we did not intend to do in the first place. Such reactions can have deleterious consequences on relationships, one’s state of mind, and may put us in guilty.
Let us understand this concept with examples. The influence of anger may cause one to lash out at the person they don’t want to or may react in a hurtful way. Another example could be making unrealistic promises or commitments when excessively happy or joyful. These reactions stem from the inability or difficulty in regulating emotion in the right direction. The opposite of reaction is a thoughtful act stemming from a momentary pause opening the door for a conscious response. Separating yourself from the overwhelming state for a while gives you the room to respond from a practical vantage. This ensures that one has control over the situation rather than the other way around. Now, the question is why do we react compulsively? The root cause for reacting compulsively differs from one individual to other. However, we will focus on some of the common patterns behind it.
Poor Listening Skills: The habit of listening half-heartedly, focusing on just one part of the information, and emphasising aspects of the situation that align with one’s perspective will most likely trigger a reaction based on a confined interpretation of the situation. Cognitive distortions like mental filter (focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all the positive ones) overgeneralization (taking one instance or example and generalising it to an overall pattern), and, jumping to the conclusion (an inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking) can also kick in due to poor listening. Generally, such patterns of listening cloud the right judgement and causes ineffective decision-making.
Habitual way to approach life events: Sometimes, a reaction becomes so ingrained in the deeper levels of the mind that it becomes natural to respond that way while confronting various situations. Responding to daily hassles eventually shapes how we deal with major life events. For instance, feeling irritated due to traffic snarls, fussing about complaining colleagues, frequent discords that trigger sadness and obligatory acts form the basis of going about other problems or difficult tasks in life.
Emotional dysregulation: The American Psychological Association (APA) defines dysregulation as “any excessive or otherwise poorly managed mechanism or response”. The inability to channelise emotions in the right direction can lead to impulsive behaviours like overthinking, anger outbursts, binge eating, breaking things around, arguments, or self-harm.
Undue importance to trivial issues: If we give undue attention to analysing, processing, and acting upon trifles, we blur the line between things that deserve genuine attention and pity issues that can be ignored. Gossiping, discussing, and keeping our consciousness centered on such issues consume our limited energy which ideally should be channelised in purposeful directions.
Being overly attached to “my expectations” from situations or clinging to set patterns and repetitive cycle of reactions: “I am like this”, “I want it to be this way” and “It should not happen any other way”. These statements highlight the discomfort triggered when things don’t go as expected. Natural responses that will sprout from such a mindset would be wrath, sadness, disharmony in relationships, intolerance for deviation, and significant disturbance in peace within and around.
consciously Choosing How to respond to Situations
Taking conscious control of the response kindles harmony, peace, calmness, and love within and around. Constant conflicts in immediate surroundings, associating our happiness with external factors, poor decision-making, inability to take the right course of action, and approaching circumstances with a single perspective hamper mental health and equanimity. Consciously analysing our responses opens the room for healthy communication, effective decision-making, stability in relationships, broad perspectives, and applying task-oriented strategies while maintaining inner balance. Some of the ways to inculcate conscious response are explained below.
- Acceptance: The first step is acceptance of the fact that things will not always turn out the way you want them to. A long-term relationship may not necessarily last, a good project will not guarantee promotion or salary increment, and investment will not always bring huge returns. If you have kids or pets in a house, things will not always be in the proper place. Significant others might not always stand up to your expectations, or a well-worked application doesn’t ensure admission to graduate school. However, this does not imply that you should lose hope and compromise on the efforts.
The message is to not be overly attached to the outcomes. Take calculated risks, do your best and let go. If you attach your happiness to the outcomes then you are giving the situation power over your inner self. This might trigger sadness or anger if it doesn’t turn out to be the way you expect it to. External factors are not always within your control.
2. Pause before you react: This momentary pause can do wonders in preventing conflicts, maintaining equanimity, and facilitating the best course of action. When you step back from the situation, it enables you to look at the situation objectively. A neutral perspective allows you to become aware of the emotions and how to take control of them rather than lashing out.
3. Move away from conflicting triggers/scenes for a while: To prevent the outburst of overwhelming emotion, the first step is to distance yourself from the situation. Being drowned in emotion, often one fails to incorporate fresh perspective and clings to a familiar style of reacting. Distancing allows us to consciously monitor response patterns and reflect upon the emotions being triggered. Approaching the situation with an open mind always makes you receptive to the right solutions.
4. Deep Breathing: A long deep breath increases vitality, and resistance power, calms the heart rate and brings awareness to the moment. The first thing that changes with overwhelming emotions is breathing patterns. For instance, notice the breath when you get angry; it becomes short and fast. Taking a few deep breaths supplies more oxygen to the brain and induces calmness which prevents clogging of the mind. The best decision-making and effective problem-solving occur in an equanimous state. Keeping the consciousness centred in this state equips one to move from reaction to conscious action.
5. Introspection: Introspection is most effective when the mind is free from restless thoughts. This mental state is reinforced when followed by a period of meditation or breathing practice. Introspection and self-analysis help to reflect upon behaviour, thought patterns, strengths, and weaknesses, accept and work through emotions, and effective interpersonal communication. It allows us to dig deeper into the root cause of feeling or behaving in a particular way. It can involve journaling or asking yourself:
- Which emotion is being triggered?
- Why is it escalating?
- Are there any hidden emotions that are manifesting as constant reactions?
- Can I have a healthy conversation with someone about it?
- How can I take control of the situation?
- How can I limit the influence of external factors on inner balance?
6. Practice until it becomes natural: Managing reactive tendencies requires daily practice. How you manage minor inconveniences determines the response to challenging circumstances. The more sadness, anger, irritation, frustration, or resentfulness used in response to daily hassles, the more we will be guided by our emotions. The more you practice to catch these tendencies, the less likely you will react from the emotionally driven part of the self.
Hopefully, this article has highlighted the importance of making conscious efforts to move from reaction to response. It is quite common to react without being aware of the impact it can have on relationships and more importantly on physiological and psychological health. Practice requires the application of all the above-mentioned points in everyday life. We encounter concerns and issues on an everyday basis; not everything goes the way we want it to. There is no doubt about it. These instances provide an opportunity to inculcate equilibrium through acceptance, pausing for a moment, distancing, and deep breathing. In the later part of the day, taking out a few minutes to introspect will show the direction to acknowledge and ameliorate behavior and reactive patterns.