Cooling the Fire of the Reactive Mind

I teach others how to self regulate their stress responses, so when I lose my cool and feel out of control, it is cause for me to stop, look and pay close attention to what happened. 

8-8-13 Water hose 1Last week, I tried out a new car wash in my area.  When entering my code, the machine said “invalid ” Leaving my car in front of the car-wash; I jogged inside to speak with the clerk.  She told me the code was invalid because I had already used it.  I patiently explained to her that no, I had not and my very dusty car outside was clear proof.  (I resisted the urge to give a snide remark about who actually scams a carwash?)  I asked for a new code and she said she lacked the authority to give it to me and to return in an hour when her manager was in.  So one hour I returned and still no manager, all the while noticing anger, impatience and stress spiraling up through my system.  I was frustrated that a task which should have only taken a few minutes was now taking up so much of my day.  I was also angry that the clerk could not just fix the problem without waiting for her manager,  AND I was mad at myself for becoming so angry!

I took a few deep breaths once I realized that I was beginning to spin out of control.  It is a familiar sensation of heart pounding, feeling revved up, my thoughts disorganized.   I definitely knew that I had the capacity to move into “fight” mode with this young clerk, but upon realizing this ridiculous situation was out of my control, I chose another tactic.  I decided to leave the station, get my other work done and then calmly returned to the car wash later in the day, and successfully washed my car!  Here’s how I shifted from reaction to response:

Stage 1:  I reacted to the fact that I wasn’t able able to wash my car at the time I planned.

Stage 2:  I recognized that I was angry, frustrated, and impatient (I named my emotions) I also noticed the physical sensations streaming through my body.

Stage 3:  I understood my emotional reaction, but chose not to act it out.  Instead of being curt with the attendant, I chose to do something else while I waited for the manager to return.  I let go of blaming her, since she didn’t have the authority to respond any differently (or at least I let her off the hook, and chose to believe that was true.)

Stage 4:  I decided to not “sweat the small stuff” instead, shrugging it off to the way life is sometimes.  (reframing is one of the best skills around!)

We use the word “stress” to describe anytime our emotions are out of control.  It is an easy catch-all phrase, yet, if we are to learn to self manage and regulate, we must dig a little deeper. The word “stress” comes from the world of physics and engineering where it is defined as pressure, pull, or a force exerted on one thing by another.  

In our culture, stress is a given and our lives will never be stress-free, but we can all benefit from learning how to respond more resourcefully.   Without this capacity we will always be at the affect of the sudden changes, pressures, shocks of life and when things just don’t go our way. By saying “I am stressed” it doesn’t provide a strategy to become unstressed.

Much is now understood about the role of our lower brain stem or reptilian brain as it is called, in our stress responses.  We know that when triggered we have the fight/flight/faint response bodily.   We become scared, just as our ancestors were when faced with saber toothed tigers, but our tigers are more often fear of losing our jobs, difficult relationships with our boss, feeling public humiliation, interpersonal conflicts, or little things not going as we wish.

We learn that as limbic and endocrine activity goes up, our ability to manage ourselves (our executive control) goes down.  We are not at our smartest selves in these moments.  Also, there is tendency to attribute our problems to others.  We put negative intention to the other, while at the same time, cutting ourselves slack.

These days much attention has been given to understanding what Daniel Goleman calls “Emotional Intelligence;”*

Executive Coaches are rarely hired to help leaders with their technical expertise, but rather to help leaders become more “emotionally intelligent” and able to self regulate, to demonstrate composure even when under pressure, and to be empathic and skillful in their relationships with others.

In terms of self-management skills, we all have the capacity to become more responsive and less the the captive participant of our lower brain stem.  If we choose to rewire our brains, we will need to make this a regular awareness practice.   Give this practice a try for a week and see how you do.

  • When in situations that causes you significant stress, name your emotional response and mood (be aware that “stress” is not an emotion.) It is helpful to print out a list of emotions to scroll through since most of us are not easily in touch with how we feel.  In addition, notice and name your physical sensations accompanying your emotions.
  • Reframe your thoughts.  Tell a different story that is more constructive, hopeful and flexible.  Remove unproductive language, emotion, and accusations.  If possible, try to understand what may be going on with the other person.  It is helpful to cut the other person some slack, as you typically do for yourself. 
  • Focus on what is possible for you to do in the moment and what is within your control to do. 
  • Let go of blaming others.
  • Congratulate yourself every time you responded vs reacted.  It is an enormous human achievement!! 

 Our best odds for living a long, productive and happy life could literally rest in our ability to manage our stress responses.   You and everyone around you will benefit!






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