Shift from Reaction to Response: A Guide to Emotional Self-Care

Shift from Reaction to Response: A Guide to Emotional Self-Care

Self-care is about more than just taking time for a bath, yoga workout, or a self-indulgent shopping trip. It’s also about learning how to take care of our emotions, especially in the heat of the moment when we lose control.

Rising heart rate, sweaty palms, constricted throat, dry mouth. Typical symptoms that many of us have experienced during an emotional reaction to something we weren’t prepared for. In these moments of high anxiety, it seems nearly impossible to focus on anything other than what we’re feeling, in the moment.

During these moments, we are in the throes of an emotional reaction. Of course, we may have not yet responded to whatever or whoever it is that it’s involved in this moment. And if that’s the case, it’s a blessing.

In the context of human behavior, the difference between a reaction and a response is that the first is involuntary and automatic while the second has an opportunity to be informed and measured, if that’s the intention. And when it comes to self-care, that’s the goal.

So, the secret is to find out how we can shift away from an immediate response whenever we find ourselves in highly intense emotional reactions. If it’s possible to identify the precise moment when we’re able, willing, and ready to interpret our reactions, that’s when it’s best to think through an appropriate response. Appropriate, informed, controlled, and measured rather than immediate. But… Is this even possible, considering today’s culture?

Right now, we live in an age of immediacy. Immediate gratification, instant-on, online all the time, live and streaming, etc… These are what we value. Today, immediacy is a virtue. And the more automatic, the better.

These can be virtues, especially when fast responses are exactly what are needed (e.g. emergencies, etc.). But when it comes to human behavior and mental and emotional health, especially in digital spaces, taking it slow and steady is essential.

Consider an example. You’re taking a quick break from work by glancing at social media. You notice an interesting thread on twitter from someone whose political opinions you usually agree with. But this time, you start to get really annoyed by where the conversation is headed. You start to compose a reply, and as you do so, you feel your heart rate start to accelerate. You’re getting really angry when you notice this, because you know you’re right, and you’re feeling indignant… and it starts to remind you of how that person cut you off in traffic last night, right after you let someone else merge in front of you just a few minutes before.

In that moment, you notice it’s just a few minutes before your next conference call, so you quickly send out that reply to the tweet, with all of the vitriol that you felt heating up inside of you in the last few minutes (mixed with the leftover anger from last night). Suddenly, someone in the office accidentally hits your chair as they walk by, and you snap at them, without knowing who they are, “Sheesh, RUDE, watch where you’re going.” And they respond, “That’s it, you’re fired!” Because this person is your boss, and they failed to slow down, process their emotions, and assess the situation before responding. They let their reaction turn into a response, rather than take the opportunity to deliver a more informed, more appropriate response.

Ok, so this example may be a bit cheesy, TBH. It’s simply designed to show how the consequences of our inability to manage our emotions can often be dire. And how the best thing one can do for self-care is to learn how to manage them.

Here’s a little mnemonic device to remind us how to slow down, and gain control over our emotions.


           Slow down. Notice that you’re in the midst of a highly intense emotional response.

           Pause. Focus on your breath. Remind yourself that you’re in control.

           Assess. What is it about the situation that bothers you, and what do you want to happen?

           Respond. Now that your intention is clear, your response can better serve your interests.

Now that you’ve processed your emotional reaction, and understand why you had that reaction, and what you want to happen, you can tailor your response. In other words, you’re in control of your emotions rather than them being in control of you. Using our hypothetical example, perhaps you might offer your boss a snack or coffee, and convince them they don’t really mean that you’re fired. They – understandably – just reacted probably because they’re hungry or tired, and firing you isn’t really what they want. ;)

When we experience intense emotions, much of this energy can remain resident inside our bodies, long after we’ve recovered. Energy healing tools like Reiki, EFT, and hypnotherapy can help release these energetic blocks for sustained health and vitality.