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The difference between reacting and responding (and why it matters)

In our fast-paced world, it’s all too common to react impulsively to situations that trigger our emotions. Whether it’s a heated exchange with a colleague, a frustrating traffic jam, or a disappointing outcome, our immediate reactions can often exacerbate the situation rather than resolve it. But what if you could work on regulating your emotions better to lengthen the time between your reaction and your response? This practice not only fosters better relationships but also enhances our overall wellbeing.

What’s the difference?

Reacting is instinctual and immediate. It’s the knee-jerk reply to what you have perceived is an insult, the swift retort to a (perceived) criticism, or the instant flare of anger in a frustrating situation. Reactions are typically driven by our emotions and often occur without much thought.

Responding, on the other hand, involves a pause. It’s a considered, thoughtful reply that takes into account the context and consequences of our actions. Responding allows us to act in a way that aligns with our values and goals, rather than being at the mercy of our immediate emotions.

So how do we learn how to lengthen the space between the stimulus and our reaction to it? The journey of emotional regulation begins early in life, during the toddler years. At this stage, children’s brains are still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for managing emotions and impulse control. Toddlers often exhibit strong emotional reactions because their ability to regulate these feelings is not yet fully developed.

Toddlers learn emotional regulation primarily through their interactions with caregivers. When parents and caregivers respond to a child’s emotional outbursts with calmness and support, they model how to handle strong emotions. This helps the child begin to understand and manage their feelings over time. However, this understanding of brain development and emotional regulation is relatively recent. Which likely means many of us were raised by parents who punished our outbursts and struggled to manage their own emotions, reacting more often than responding.

As a result, we might find ourselves struggling with emotional regulation as adults, mirroring the patterns we observed during our formative years. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn and cultivate healthier, more authentic emotional responses. By understanding the roots of our reactions and practicing new strategies, we can break the cycle and foster healthier ways of handling our emotions. This not only benefits us but also sets an example for the next generation, helping them develop emotional resilience.

So how do we do this?

A good place to start is with curiosity. When you feel yourself getting triggered (or in the wake of a reaction), get curious about what might be at the heart of it. Consider what you were feeling in your body and the thoughts that were racing through your mind at that moment. Try to recall other times in your life where you felt that way or might have reacted in similar ways. By approaching your reactions with curiosity rather than judgement, you can begin to uncover the root causes of your emotional responses.

This self-awareness is the first step towards developing a more measured and thoughtful approach to managing your emotions. Over time, you’ll find it easier to pause, reflect, and choose a response that aligns with your values and goals, rather than reacting impulsively. You may also find it helpful to keep an emotional journal for a period of time. This can be a useful tool for identifying patterns and triggers while building awareness of your emotions and helping you to understand the origins of them.

Cultivating mindfulness can also help to enhance our ability to observe our thoughts and feelings without getting swept away by them. Meditation can be a useful tool for practising mindfulness although we can also simply bring more mindfulness into our lives by spending more time focused on what’s right in front of us rather than swept away in thoughts of past or future, or scrolling through devices.

Remember too, that long, slow diaphragmatic breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to calm the body and mind. This physiological response can create a pause, giving you time to think before you react/respond. When you feel a strong emotional reaction building, try taking a slow breath in for a count of four, hold for five, and exhale for six. Repeat a few times if needed.

It’s also okay to ask for some space or time if you’re triggered while interacting with someone. Often, we feel like we need to resolve something immediately. Yet if you give yourself some space to calm your body and mind, you may be able to identify what it is that’s truly bothering you. Taking time for yourself also prevents the escalation of conflict and reduces the risk of saying or doing something you might regret. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I need a moment to gather my thoughts,” or “Can we take a break and revisit this later?” This approach fosters healthier communication and ensures that your response is thoughtful and aligned with your true intentions, rather than a reaction driven by immediate emotions.

Over time, practising emotional regulation helps strengthen the neural pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, making it easier to pause and choose a more measured response over an impulsive reaction. While it may not feel natural to begin with, this process becomes more intuitive with consistent effort and patience.

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