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  • Ayla Garlick

Responding vs Reacting

Understanding the difference between emotions and feelings can help us to change unhealthy behaviors and respond with choice instead of reacting out of automatic behaviours. Feelings and emotions are highly interconnected, but are two very different things.

Emotions occur in the subcortical regions of the brain and create biochemical reactions in our body which alters our physical state. Emotions originally helped our species to survive by producing quick reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between. Managing emotions is not about trying to control them. We are as effective at controlling emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze!

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions. Feelings are subjective, being influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. They are the mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when we have an emotion. Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by the thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion.

Emotions play out in the theater of the body, Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.

While basic emotions are instinctual and common to us all, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt are based on our individual past programming. It’s possible to react to emotions and the feelings they evoke based on unconscious fear-based perceptions which don't serve us anymore. Yet we live your life, and make decisions and behave according to these outdated tendencies.

Knowing our own triggers and being able to recognise when we are entering automatic reactions are the first steps toward developing our own emotional intelligence. We can choose how we navigate and experience the world by becoming aware of our emotions and feelings, determining which is which and their root causes, and then inserting conscious thought followed by deliberate action. In the gaps between emotion, feeling, and acting, we all have the power to direct our lives and move forward toward our goals, no matter what is going on around us.

Learning to become non-reactive is a continual challenge, but it does get easier. Each time we override our automatic reactions and choose our response, it gets easier, because “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Stimulating the neural substrates of calm, contentment, and caring strengthens them.

The responsive mode of our brain can be activated, encouraged, and reinforced through mindfulness practices.

When our defensive fear-based system takes over, we often lose the ability to down-regulate our own physiological arousal. Our heart rate becomes high and we start secreting adrenaline and can’t process information well. We become flooded. We can’t compassionately listen, we tend to repeat ourselves and become aggressive or we want to run away or fight (fight/flight sympathetic arousal). Our access to important social processes like our sense of humour, creative problem-solving, empathy and non-defensive listening is impaired. Flooding predicts that our shields go up. The more flooded we are, the more nasty interchanges and the more we summarise ourselves instead of taking on new information.

The concept of flooding suggests the importance of slowing down, attuning to ourself, to know what we are feeling and self-soothing rather than fighting or fleeing. Some physical and mental discomfort is unavoidable. But most of our suffering comes from when we add our reactions to them. Reacting is instinctual. Responding is a conscious choice. The trick is to become aware of this initial reaction, resist doing anything, involve our higher intelligence by considering options, possible ramifications, who we want to be, and what is going to be in our best interest, and, then, choose how to respond.

When we learn how to restore calm to reduce stress, our relationships can become a port in the storm instead of a source of flooding.

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