Human survival has always depended on our ability to react to quickly. Acting on instinct, without thought was rewarded by the opportunity to continue living, so our bodies became exceptionally good at it. We’ve never lost that ability.
Whenever we perceive some thing or event, that is, when we see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or feel it, the body activates positive or negative emotions and gets ready for action. This system is so much a part of our basic life support that these reactions occur even in the absence of any actual threats! All we have to do is have a thought about something frightening or come into contact with something that we viewed as dangerous or scary in the past, and the body can instantly go from rest to full-throttled arousal, complete with sweat, a pounding heart, shortness of breath, wobbly knees and dizziness. We often call this “panic.”
Even though we cannot control when our reaction systems will activate and can do nothing to stop them once they start, we always retain some ability to control how we RESPOND to them afterwards. Responses are choices, thoughtful decisions about how we want to manage with something. Recognizing the difference between responses and reactions is important for coping because it gives us the chance to come back to the present moment and reconnect with our goals and values. It gives us back a sense of control. When I catch myself feeling anxious, angry, stressed, or depressed I can always ask ‘How do I want to feel in this moment?’ and then change my focus and my behaviour to start the process of bringing that change about.
The video below is a fun example of this. Passengers forced to wait on a delayed Air Canada flight were serenaded by a Klezmer band traveling on the same plane. Every passenger made their own choice about how to cope with the wait: to enjoy the music and the fun of such an unusual experience, to remain angry and frustrated at the inconvenience, to worry about whether they’ll make their connecting flights. We always have the choice. The trick is just to remember that.