Responding to stress and challenging situations.

We are living in the age of social media, fear of missing out, information overload, quick responses and likes; we are living in a stressful time. However, good news is that there is more than one way to react and respond to these times and particularly stressful situations. And it is up to us how we choose to respond, there are in fact ways in which we can train our brain to do it better.

In our lives we are constantly reacting and responding to stress, in the environments around us, to various situations and events, we are constantly making decisions and reacting to various stimuli.

“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” – Lao Tzu

Quite often our first reaction is not the best course to take, and more often than not our first reaction can hurt someone else and can make our own situation worse. That is mainly because we react without thinking, it is primal reaction or our gut reaction often based on fear and insecurities. As Danit Kaya writes for Headspace:

“This fear response is the result of an influential neurological tango. One partner in this tango, located in front of the brain’s temporal lobes, is called the amygdala. Responsible for the perception of emotions, including fear, anger, sadness and the controlling of aggression, the amygdala is our threat detection control tower. It is crucial in protecting us from perceived danger (eg. staying out of a slithering snake’s path) and recognizing similar events in the future (eg. steering clear of snakes in general). It is fully developed at birth and it’s a deeply primal part of our neural structure. Often referred to as the reptilian mind, it exists in all vertebrates and, while it protects us from imminent danger, it often causes hyper-reactivity when it dances solo.”

However, instead of giving way to this primal reaction, allowing the reptilian mind to take over, we can learn to take time and respond mindfully to difficult situations. When we learn to respond we take the whole situation in and evaluate what would be the best course of action based on such values as reason, compassion etc. When responding we don’t work with our instincts, instead we work with our mind.

“The other tango partner, called the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. It is responsible for many higher level-thinking skills, including analytical processing, executive decision-making, and behaviour modification. It keeps areas of our brain like the amygdala in check, instructing our brains as one researcher describes it, ‘I know it’s a snake, but it’s behind a piece of plexiglass, so we’re OK.’ Greater activity in the amygdala and lower activity in the prefrontal cortex has been linked to aggressive behaviour, increased anxiety and a lack of ability to make sound decisions. As opposed to the amygdala, it isn’t fully developed until a person’s mid-20’s. This means the choreography for the neural tango doesn’t approach balance until the third decade of life, assuming no history of trauma, neglect, or underlying mental health conditions.”

So how can we learn to respond with the prefrontal cortex as opposed with the amygdala? The two key things to answer this question are: mindfulness and pause. Or as Diana Winston calls it: ‘RAIN’:

Recognise: Become aware of the kind of emotion you are having. Just this simple act of recognising can be helpful. Give it a soft mental label like “fear”, “sadness”, “joy”, “thinking”, etc.

Allow: Can you let this emotion be here? See if you can bring some gentle acceptance to it. Recognise that all emotions are fine, it’s our relationship to those emotions that can be troublesome.

Investigate: Get curious about your emotion. What does it feel like, particularly in your body? Can you feel it in your chest or belly or elsewhere? Does it move or stay the same? Are there accompanying thoughts? Use your mindfulness to experience the emotion in the present moment.

Not identify with: As you go through the above process, you will naturally begin to take this emotion less personally, seeing it as it is: energy in motion, passing through you. In other words, seeing anxiety as ‘the anxiety’ versus ‘my anxiety’. The dis-identification process allows space from a difficult emotion and helps regain a greater sense of calm and ease.

Taking a pause and then using RAIN technique and mindfulness practice becomes a powerful tool to replace our gut instinctive primal fear and threat based reaction with a more thoughtful response. Anxieties, stress, the business of everyday life won’t go away, however it is up to us to respond to them better. Or as Winston notes: “You’re not going to get rid of the causes of anxieties in life, but you can be present with them and learn to respond more skilfully.”

Before jumping on your first reaction next time, take a deep breath, pause for a moment, recognise the emotion you are having, allow it to be there, investigate and be curious about it and then not identify yourself with it, you are not your emotion, regain back the sense of calm and ease. It won’t come easy and will take practice, however at the end of the day it will help your mind to be more at ease and it will probably save few of your nerve cells. Be mindful and respond instead of reacting.