[minti_pullquote align=”left”]“For most of us most of the time, our emotional reactivity obscures our natural intelligence. But if we become motivated to start contemplating the approach of seeing pain and discomfort as opportunities for healing… our intelligence actually will get stronger than our emotional reactivity. If we take those opportunities for healing, the momentum of the intelligence will gradually start to outweigh the momentum of the reactivity.” ~ Pema Chodron[/minti_pullquote][minti_clear]
Fear, anger, disappointment – we have all experienced these emotions at work. Our natural tendency in dealing with unpleasant feelings is to avoid or resolve the negative situation. Yet, there is growing evidence that people learning to meet unpleasant feelings by turning toward them as part of their mindfulness practice show improved ability to regulate emotional responses (Holzel et al 2011). The better news is that mindfulness training changes the brain to make you less reactive (Congleton, Holzel and Lazar 2015) and improves the distribution of limited cognitive resources needed for emotion regulation (Slagter et al 2007). Most importantly, instead of treating negative emotions as something to avoid, we learn to use these opportunities to free ourselves from reactive patterns limiting our growth.
Our Reactive Brain
A quote commonly attributed to Viktor Frankl points out that between a stimulus and your response, there is a space, in which you can choose your response. Research in the 1990’s suggest that as soon as we are exposed to a trigger (an external trigger such as an email or an internal trigger such as memory of the email), your brain instantly prepares to react and you become conscious of that intention to act only later and have a very brief window to choose differently (Libet 1999). When we are stressed, this window becomes even smaller and we are more susceptible to reacting without thinking.[minti_clear]
How Can Mindfulness Help With Reactivity?
Mindfulness offers many benefits but I am going to focus on three ways it helps manage reactivity:
- Creates space between the trigger and your response.
The most immediate benefit that practitioners of mindfulness notice is their ability to stop and breathe instead of reacting. Purposeful breathing acts as a break to the sympathetic nervous system and allows the thinking brain to think clearly. This sacred pause creates space for people for the next benefit to take place.
- Awareness with compassion and curiosity
In our mindfulness programs we use the Triangle of Awareness to observe with compassionate curiosity our patterns in self talk, emotions, and body sensations. By coming closer to our negative thoughts, emotions and body sensations, without reactivity, we gain more information about our selves and the situation. We create the space for the next benefit to take place.
- Reframing and Emergence
When we observe our emotions and thoughts without trying to suppress, change, or resolve them, we create the space to see different perspectives that allows us to reframe the situation and find emergent solutions. We can thus come up with skillful actions needed to resolve the challenging situation in a way that is kind and creative.[minti_clear]
Mindfulness Steps When You Get Triggered
So the next time you are triggered, take the following steps that can be remembered by the acronym STOP:
- Take a couple of breaths to calm the sympathetic nervous system.
- Observe. Using the Triangle of Awareness, observe very closely and with compassion, your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, without trying to change them or justify them. Just be with what ever is arising, with a gentle curiosity. Don’t believe the self talk that tries to convince you why you are right in reacting. Don’t give into the urge to react. Simply be with what is arising.
- Perspective. In being with what is, without reactivity, you create the space to see with clarity and tap into your natural intelligence that would not be possible with a reactive mind. Within this space you allow for emergent solutions that are creative and compassionate to all involved.
It may be harder to practice this than it looks, so be patient with yourself. It is also helpful to remember to practice mindfulness regularly to build this capacity to be with what ever is arising with equanimity, so that when you do encounter a challenge, you have the strength to not give into the reactive patterns but trust emergence.