Have you ever reacted quickly to an event or a person in a way you later regretted?
An outburst of anger, acceptance of an additional task that was not your duty, or a lack of reaction in an important discussion? What was the price you paid for it? Is it possible to change your behavior?
I will tell you a story. It is a late afternoon. The day was full of tensions. Paul is in a hurry in order to be on time with what he’s planned. Suddenly Jack is entering: he won’t be on time with what he’s promised. Paul feels the warm wave of irritation . Many unpleasant words are uttered about missing deadlines and about Jack himself. Jack is trying to explain, but Paul isn’t able even to concentrate on what Jack is saying. His hands are shaking, his heart is beating and his mind is full of four-letter words. Jack is upset and leaves. Paul slowly calms down. Few minutes later a reflection comes: after all, Paul can always count on him. But the voice in his mind is still loud: “but he deserved it”. Slowly this voice quiets down. Paul feels bad. What to do now?
We all see that Paul was hijacked . What grabbed him? It was his own biology and more specifically his stress reaction, his emotions, his own body. And why was the mind absent? Usually it manages his anger in a very effective way.
STRESS REACTION. Everyone has it because it protects us biologically against what we interpret as a threat. Everyone has a little bit different type of a reaction. Everyone has one reaction that is dominant: one that always manifests itself under different pressures.
It is not necessarily always an anger outburst. Wendy automatically reacts in a different way than Paul: she would drop everything, despite being really late and would help Jack immediately. There is no way she would leave him alone. George would freeze, sharpen all senses and react to the first inconsistency of Jack’s explanation. Anna would pretend that she needs to leave immediately in order to avoid the difficult conversation.
How it happens biologically? Our stress reaction is shaped in response to experience. In our neural system, when a connection between neurons is often used it become a default setting and the often used reaction become automatic. The type of the dominant reaction depends on what unconsciously we practiced in the past especially at the beginning of our life when our nervous system was not fully mature.
Can you recognize your dominant stress response?
Recall different situations from your life: someone cut you off, somebody jumped the queue ahead of you, somebody assessed you in an unfair way? How do you react during a difficult conversation? How do you accept additional tasks that are not your duties?
Have you ever regretted your automatic response? If the answer is yes: answer the following one:
Can you change it?
To answer this question, let’s have a look at how this reaction occurs. The limbic system is organized in a much simpler way than the rational cortex. When an external input arrives, it is interpreted based on rough similarities. As a consequence the limbic system initiates a program that triggers a reaction of many organs, including the muscular system. It is automatic, occurs without conscious thought. It prepares the body for a quick response to the event. It happens physically: the heart beat changes, the breath changes, and the groups of muscles contract. Like being in the starting blocks just before start of the race.
In this moment the information reaches the rational, conscious neocortex. And only in this moment once we become aware of it we can have an influence. Usually we do it through opposing the muscles’ contraction, not allowing them to act.
Sometimes, however this control fails. It happens when the stress is strong enough or accumulated and we don’t have enough strength to fight it back : like with a straw breaking the camel’s back.
It can also happen when the neocortex is busy with other stuff or blocked by ourselves from receiving internal signals. It cannot control what it isn’t aware of.
So, we come back to our question: how can we change it?
We have actually 2 options.
The first, the so-called top – down solution involves the strengthening of the neocortex to monitor and to recognize the body’s sensations.
The second one, the so called bottom – up solution involves the body. The limbic system doesn’t understand the language of logic. The rational thinking cannot dissolve the stress reaction. The limbic system works in constant interaction with the body: it influences body’s functions, and gets the feedback from the body. That is, through the body we can affect its reactions.
That means that we should focus on the following two things
- Learn to better feel and identify own stress reaction in the body: what happens with different muscles, heart beat, the breath? Track also the internal narratives – they are also an integral part of the reaction. The quicker you become aware, the earlier you can react meaningyour efficiency will increase.
- Learn to centre the body through the breath, movement and posture. The balance in the body stimulates the emotional balance. That allows you to get back to the emotional balance instead of fighting against your own muscles and physiology. This is much more effective and requires less effort. It unlocks also the full choice of conscious actions instead of focusing on fighting back.
Limbic system learns through repetitions. It is not sufficient to know, how to do it or do it just once. If you want to manage your stress reaction, learn and keep practicing.
If it is too difficult for you to do it yourself, look for a professional support: regular somatic workshops, trainings or an individual coach. Don’t let yourself be hijacked again and again: build your own strong life according to what is important to you.