When we think of the word mindfulness, a number of definitions rise to the top, such as being present and thoughtful. On paper, they sound reasonable but when we add in the element of human behavior and our unpredictable nature, two other words enter the mindful lexicon – reacting and responding.
What is the difference between reacting and responding? They seem interchangeable, but actually couldn’t be any more different in stressful moments. Reacting to a situation is acting without giving the action itself much thought. It tends to be quick, impulsive, and emotionally driven. Responding to a situation is a more thoughtful action, it is cool, calm, and collected. What if I told you that the simple act of mindfulness could be the key to more positive interactions and outcomes, despite any challenging moments that life might throw at you?
Reactions vs. Responses
Stressful moments in life are going to happen no matter what. This is a known fact. When was the last time that you were in a decent mood until a small annoyance or upsetting interaction happened and it ended up ruining your morning, afternoon, or even your entire day? Let’s say someone you live with forgets to do the one thing that you’ve asked them to do or your neighbor starts a sentence off with “no offense,” and then continues to say something offensive. A reaction to these situations might be snapping at them, getting defensive, or saying something hurtful. A response would start with asking questions to better understand their intention behind their actions before jumping to a conclusion or impulsively conveying the first set of feelings that arose from the situation.
Mindfulness as a Solution
When an annoying or hurtful event like this happens, a thought or emotion first forms, such as thinking your request was not honored and respected or feeling offended and hurt by your neighbor’s comment. These thoughts and feelings can take control if you allow them to. How and what you choose to do at this point changes the potential action and outcome for you and the other person. Reactions are subconscious actions fueled by a thought or feeling – they tend to push out any other (perhaps more appropriate) idea or response. It creates a knee-jerk reaction.
However, when you take a moment to practice mindfulness, you can stop the thoughts and feelings from controlling your action or mood. This helps you regulate your emotions.
Practice this the next time a stressful situation arises:
1. Take a moment to breathe.
Try square breathing. Breathe from the stomach (not the chest) and inhale deeply for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold again for 4 seconds). It’s a secret trick that Navy Seals use when they are in very stressful situations because it calms the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is the fight or flight response system. By regulating your breath, it brings you back to the present moment and away from negative thoughts that have a tendency to stay put. Square breathing also helps regulate and calms the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), which regulates the heart, breathing, and cortisol levels.
2. Acknowledge the physical feelings in your body.
Maybe you can feel your shoulders tensing or your face starting to get warm. Do your best to correct the physical sensations that you have control over, such as relaxing your shoulders, or simply just observe the sensations you can’t immediately control, like your face warming up. Don’t judge these physical feelings. Instead, listen to what they are trying to communicate to you whether that is stress, anger, or another emotional reaction. If you notice a thought starting to come up for you, don’t judge that either. Acknowledge that the thought exists and tuck it away for later. By no longer resisting your experience, you are able to accept the present moment.
3. Return to the present moment.
Take note of 3 things in your surroundings. These things can be as simple as the rug on the floor or the leaves on a houseplant. You could even notice smells or sounds that you hear, anything that brings you back to the present situation slowly and calmly.
4. Set your intentions.
What is the desired outcome? If it is to be heard or feel respected when making a request to others, you might set the intention of understanding to help bring you to that outcome. If you are seeking an outcome where you can voice your hurt and be understood and acknowledged, you might set the intention of compassion for both yourself and the one who has hurt you. In cases where interaction with others is not applicable, you might set the intention of letting the situation “roll-off” of your back and not impact the rest of your day.
5. Seek a More Positive Outcome.
Giving yourself a moment (or more) of mindfulness and setting your intention before acting or speaking can completely change the way that your action is received. Doing so can subtly adjust your tone, delivery, and message. That thoughtful response and calmer demeanor in a situation tend to have a better chance of a more positive and desired outcome. And even in situations where you aren’t necessarily interacting with others, these tips can help you to ensure your day is not ruined by life’s small annoyances.
Just like with a muscle, the more you use and exercise it, the stronger it will get over time. Practicing mindfulness will become easier and feel more natural the more you use it. It’s important to know that it is a continual practice, you won’t just master it one day and never need to practice it again. It’s unrealistic to be perfect. You are a human with naturally occurring thoughts and emotions. Knowing that mindfulness is a lifelong practice that controls negative thoughts will allow you to be more gentle and forgiving of yourself when you start to feel difficult emotional reactions.
An added benefit of practicing mindfulness in everyday life is reduced stress levels. Stress, especially over long periods, puts added pressure on the body and can disrupt several biological systems. To learn more about this topic, please visit the Institute for Natural Medicine’s article on The Importance of Stress Reduction in Overall Health.
Breanne Smith is a Hawaii-based writer and speaker with a focus on personal development, self-care, and mindfulness. A nurturer by nature, she is passionate about helping others grow and thrive in their lives. When she is not glued to her laptop, she can be found tending to her many houseplants or spending time with family. Her work can be found on her blog, www.rootandriseblog.com, as well as her podcast The Root and Rise Podcast.
INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.