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The Power of Under-Reacting

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The Power of Under-Reacting
(click for podcast) (8:55 min.)

When deciding what to address each month, I look at what I’m hearing from people, and where there seems to be commonality in conflict or issues. Then I look at causes and solutions. Lately a lot of problems are arising from reactivity, and this is both widespread and pretty straightforward to fix. Under-reacting is one of the most powerful skillsets for maintaining civility, curtailing conflict, and retaining our power. So let’s dive in.

Benefits of Under-Reacting
When we react, we make snap judgments based more on emotions than reason. We haven’t taken the time to consider all the facts. This leads to poor decision-making and negative consequences. Under-reacting lets us take a step back and assess a situation so we can respond in a more mindful way.


When we just react, we often say or do things we regret later. This damages relationships and creates conflict. When we take that mindful moment, we can avoid saying or doing something hurtful and respond instead with empathy and understanding.

Reducing Stress, Promoting Health

Reactions bring on a rush of emotions, anger, and anxiety. These increase stress levels and all the physical aspects of fight, flight, or freeze. These states literally obstruct clear, level-headed thinking, as our brain’s resources are shunted to our arms and legs. By once again taking that mindful moment, we have time to calm down and approach the situation with a clear head. This reduces stress and promotes overall well-being.

Like any skill, the ability to under-react requires practice and patience. So let’s look at some ways to cultivate it.

1. Recognize Your Triggers

The first step in under-reacting is recognizing what triggers your reactions. Is it a person, situation, or topic? Once you identify your triggers, you can prepare yourself to respond thoughtfully rather than react.

There are times when someone will trigger you with the express purpose of getting a reaction. This is a power move to put you on the back foot. By under-reacting, they don’t get the reaction they were after, and you don’t relinquish your power. You maintain your sense of calm, cool credibility.

2. Pause and Breathe

This is imperative for two reasons: giving you time to think and physically reducing the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. When you feel the trigger, take a moment to pause and slow your   breath. This can help you calm down and approach the situation with a clear head. By exhaling more slowly than inhaling, you tell your brain that you’re in the opposite state to fight, flight, freeze, and that you’re safe. This is called Heart-Rate Variability Breathing, if you want to look it up.

3. Don’t Take Things Personally

You’ve likely heard this a million times, but it’s often the first place to look. When we react, we usually create narratives that are all about us and how the situation is going to destroy our lives. More often than not it won’t. Plus, since we created that story, we can just as easily create a different one that has nothing to do with us. That’s usually more accurate anyway.

This a kind of reframe. By reframing our thoughts, we can approach the situation with a more positive and constructive mindset. For example, instead of thinking "This person is trying to upset me," how about thinking "This person may be having a bad day, and maybe I  can help by being understanding."

This brings up the empathy mentioned earlier, which is a powerful tool in our more mindful, less reactive state. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. By practicing empathy, we can approach a situation with a more compassionate and understanding mindset. Put yourself in the other person's position and consider their perspective before responding.

4. Ask Yourself If Any Action is Needed

We tend to have a lot of “control issues,” and think we need to jump in and “fix” things. We really need to ask ourselves “does this need or deserve my time and energy right now, or can I reserve that for something that really matters?” When we remove ourselves from that st
ruggle to control or fix something that isn’t really within our priorities, does the world end? When we can let go of our own importance for a moment, we can once again think more clearly with less stress.

Taking a moment, we can re-visit the Serenity Prayer, and see what we reasonably can and cannot do. Then we can consider the best course of action, do what we can and then let go. We don’t need to be in control of every little thing, and in fact we can’t.

5. Recognize What Else is Going On
Very often
, over-reacting is due to something that has nothing to do with what we’re reacting to. Some of the most common contributors to over-reacting are being:

  • Hungry
  • Hurt
  • Tired
  • Drunk
  • Overwhelmed
  • Sick
  • Worried

All these states lower our ability to under-react. We need to take care of ourselves and be present enough to not get hijacked by them.

6. Separate the outside from the inside.

There will always be outrageous, unfair, and upsetting things happening around us. When things are turbulent, we need to remember that what’s outside of us is outside of our control, and all that is in our control is us. Just because everything is crazy around us, doesn't mean we need to be crazy within.

The Science Behind Not Reacting

As you know, I employ a lot of neuroscience and physiology in my work, and this area of under-reacting is rooted in what’s called emotional regulation. When triggered, the body responds with a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, norepinepherine, and cortisol. These stimulate the fight, flight, freeze reaction, which pretty much turns off our ability to think. Reactions and bad decision-making follow.

By practicing the emotional regulation techniques mentioned, such as pausing, HRV breathing, and reframing our thoughts, we activate our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. This helps us respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively.

The power of under-reacting is a valuable skill that benefits us in many areas of life. We can approach situations with a clear head, make better decisions, improve our relationships, and reduce stress. So the next time you find yourself in a challenging situation, remember the power of under-reacting and take a moment to pause, reflect, and respond mindfully.

Want to learn more about how to become the best you possible? How your communication can hold you back or catapult you forward?
Come visit the web site, or better yet, contact me and see how we can design a program to fit your needs and desired outcomes.

     - Ian J. Blei


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