Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor E. Frankl
Perhaps you’ve had these kinds of experience:
- Your manager gets an expression on their face that makes you feel like a child waiting for a scolding.
- Someone speaks to you in a particular tone of voice and before you know it you are feeling angry.
- You hear someone’s name mentioned and your heart sinks.
These reactions are instantaneous, one moment you think or feel one way, then in the space of a few seconds you are thinking and feeling something completely different.
We all have reactions.
Some of them are pleasant, we hear a child laugh and we smile.
Some of them are not so pleasant and even less useful. With a single word, gesture or expression someone can trigger a negative and stressful experience in us.
It’s not our fault that we have these reactions. As we are growing up we spend a lot of time learning to respond to what is going on around us with our family, friends and society at large.
In the last century Pavlov performed some experiments with dogs in which they learned to associate the sound of a bell with feeding time, after a little training the dogs could be made to salivate just hearing the sound of the bell. They had an instantaneous and unconscious response to the sound of the bell.
Our mouths may not water when we hear a bell, but we have probably accumulated many conditioned responses over the course of our lives.
These reactions (conditioned responses) are a natural part of the way our nervous systems work. They are a simple learning strategy with advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of reactions
Automatic reactions to stimuli have a number of advantages:
- Easy to learn: Our brains can create these associations and reactions very easily, for our nervous system they are very quick to build, no thinking or deliberation is required.
- Automatic: you don’t have to think about how you are going to respond, the responses are right there, even before you’ve had time to think about it.
- Very fast: no need to think about how to respond your automatic system has done the job for you.
It’s not all good news, these kinds of reactions have some disadvantages:
- Automatic: because they are automatic, they occur whether we want them to or not.
- Unconsidered: it doesn’t matter whether the response is appropriate or not, or whether it useful or not, these reactions are triggered anyway.
- Very fast: because they are very fast it is not always possible to stop the reaction.
- Our reactions can be triggers: we are not the only people with triggers, many of the people around us have triggers of their own. Our reaction to what they say or do may trigger one of their reactions to us which in turn triggers us into another reaction. If you’ve ever been in one of those social situations that has rapidly spiralled out of control for no apparent reason you may have experienced this effect.
React or Respond?
You are already familiar with the alternative.
In situations where you are not triggered you can probably take time to think about how you want to deal with this situation, how you want to be and what you want to achieve in this predicament.
In short, you can respond to the situation rather than just react.
When you respond, the autopilot is off. You have time to:
- decide what to do next.
- consider the consequences of your actions.
- act in new ways, rather than repeating the same old mistakes.
- derail the patterns of reaction and counter-reaction which can spiral out of control.
- accept responsibility for your thoughts, words and deeds.
- take back control of your emotional life.
How To Change A Reaction Into A Response
This is a two part process.
The first part is based on a mindfulness process called RAIN described by Tara Brach. Just the first part of this process is often enough to defuse a reaction and enhance your ability to respond.
The second part of the process uses EFT/Tapping to process what the first part uncovers to perform a thorough processing of the roots of the reaction.
The aim of the process is to notice what is going on, pause, investigate and process the reaction.
You can use the first part in real time as reactions arise, to add the EFT/ tapping may take a little more time.
Rather than just tapping on the reaction I think it is possible to get a lot of benefit by investigating the reaction and using it as an opportunity to practice greater awareness and self-acceptance.
Part 1: Applying the RAIN model.
The RAIN model is a four step process. The first two steps by themselves can often give relief to unpleasant reactions and sensations
- R(ecognise): Notice that the trigger/reaction process has happened and you are left with this particular feeling reaction. You might ask yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?”
- A(llow): Give the thoughts and feelings to be present without acting on them. Rather than trying to force these unpleasant feelings away, give them as much awareness and patience as you can find. Be willing to be with your experience whatever it is.
- I(nvestigate with kindness): Use your natural curiosity to investigate your experience, noticing what is going on, paying attention to the layers and components of the thoughts/feelings that make up the reaction. You might ask yourself: “What wants most attention?” or “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What does this feeling want from me?”. Enquire with gentleness and kindness, this is not an interrogation.
- N(on-identification): Practising with this process eventually leads to a letting go of the story-line, a dis-identification with what is going on, so it becomes something that is happening but that we are not taking personally.
This process may take some practice (perhaps a lifetime’s) to apply, but each application of the RAIN process leads to some more space in which to respond rather than to react.
You can use the RAIN process in real-time to reduce the power of the trigger-reaction. Just using this process alone it is possible to lessen the power of our reactions.
Part 2: Adding EFT
We can take it further by using our preferred change techniques to neutralise the trigger-reaction part of the process.
It might be possible to use this process in real time depending on your circumstances, but it is probably easier to use in retrospect to soften a reaction to a trigger ready for the next time that trigger occurs.
When you are in a safe space and have time to work on the experience. Run through the memory of the time you were triggered, paying attention to your experience. When you reach the reactive spot use the RAIN approach to allow the thoughts / feelings to be present and to investigate - then tap for what you find. Once again you can test by remembering the events to see that you have neutralised the reaction.
When those trigger-reactions have been neutralised test your results by remembering the last time the trigger happened, or imagining the next time it will happen. If you have neutralised everything the trigger can occur without the response.
If you have other reactions when you remember this situation, take care of each of those reactions in the same way. It is very likely that you have multiple triggers and reactions and it may take you a while to clear them all.
Imagine the next time you might be triggered.
How do you respond now?
What skills, perspectives and feelings do you have available now?
When you are next in the situation that previously triggered you, notice how you respond now.
Each trigger-reaction neutralised is a step closer to a kind of emotional freedom where you can respond in new and different ways out of a still and resourceful mind rather than just repeating the same old knee jerk reaction.