Learning To Respond Rather Than React

Why do we react?

When there is an event that is perceived as threatening something called the fight or flight response kicks in. The fight or flight mode was developed during the early stages of our evolution as a tool to increase one’s chances of survival.

When faced with a threat your body goes through physiological changes in order to prepare you to either flee or fight that threat. Fight or flight readies your body to react in matter of moments, without wasting precous time thinking things through.

In today’s world the occurrence of actual life/death situations in everyday’s life is fortunately very rare. The challenges of today’s world are different – failing to accomplish a task, embarrassing ourselves, being underestimated or openly confronted. 

The brain however perceives those challenges as threats, activating the same sympathetic nervous system that it does when being physically attacked. Our mind and body shift to fight or flight mode at the sight of any emergency situation. 

The heart rate increases, pupils dilate, muscles tense. In an instance your whole body is prepared to react to the threat usually by fleeing or fighting back.

In day to day situations fight or flight is not the best approach. In fact it often ends up making things worse. How many times have you found yourself regretting the way you reacted to a situation. “I shouldn’t have said that”, “I shouldn’t have done that”, “What was I thinking?”. Truth is – you weren’t thinking.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.

Charles R. Swindoll

Reaction vs Response


Reactions are instinctual – you are basically running on auto-pilot. Reactions don’t come from our conscious mind, they are impulses that emerge from our instincts and learned behaviors. When reacting we don’t take into consideration the long term effects of what we do or say.

It is easy to spot why reacting is not the best way to handle a stressful situation. Is there an alternative? Yes. Response.


Response comes from the conscious mind. It weighs the long term effects and stays in line with your core values. To respond is to decide the best course of action based on your goals.

To respond consciously could only take a few seconds. Other times it might require us to remove ourselves from the situation and allow ourselves to cool down before we respond.

Responding is deliberate and is aiming towards a certain outcome. 

The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.

George Bernard Shaw

How to respond rather than react?

  • Develop Self-awareness – Being aware of our thoughts and emotions and their effects on our behavior gives us a better sense of what works and what doesn’t in the way we handle situations. Self-awareness allows us to recognise the triggers and to know what reaction would follow. 
  • Pause – Once you become aware of the trigger and the emotions that come with it, pause. Create space for yourself to observe and disconnect from the reaction. Let the reaction fade. You can do this by simply taking a few deep breaths or even physically stepping back a little.
  • What your goal is in this situation – Now that you have created the space put your goal front and center. What do you want the outcome of the situation to be? Get past the emotion and into the information.
  • Choose your response – Once you let the reaction fade away you are free to respond in a way that helps you achieve your goal. When you pause and think about your overall objectives and how this situation impacts your goals, it will be much easier to decide on the best response.

Taming the impulses to react in stressful situations requires a lot of practice. This is a skill as any other and needs you to work on developing it.

The more you practice self-awareness the easier it would be to remain calm and nonreactive in stressful situations. This does not mean suppressing the thoughts and emotions. It is next to impossible to do that. You will keep experiencing the emotions but you will be able to deal with them in a better way.

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