Judith Cannon, PhD, LMFT
Healing, Growth, Creativity Enriching
Our Lives, Our Relationships, Our World
If you have taken time to practice Deep Listening, Curiosity and Compassion, you have probably noticed that sometimes they come easily and at other times it seems impossible to practice them. Let’s talk about reactivity and how at certain times our best intentions fly out the window.
To understand reactivity, we need to understand something about how our brain works. We will focus on two parts of our brain—the limbic system and the neocortex. All mammals have a limbic brain. For humans, the limbic brain sits in the back of our heads, at the top of the spinal cord.
The primitive limbic brain has three responses—fight, flight or freeze. Our limbic brain responds like an animal in the jungle when it hears a rustling in the grass. It feels threatened and makes an instantaneous decision to attack, flee or freeze. While necessary for survival in jungle, this part of our brain can work against us in the civilized world.
The limbic brain is reactive. As humans in a civilized world, the threats we experience are rarely life or death, but our limbic system perceives them that way. When we are in a state of reactivity, we don’t want to listen and we don’t feel curious. We feel a strong urge to fight or run away as if our lives depended on it.
The neocortex is the resourceful, human part of our brain. It sits in the front of our heads and gives a slower (by nanoseconds) but much more reasoned and accurate response. This is the problem-solving part of our brain.
The neocortex is responsive. When we are operating from the neocortex, we can listen and be curious. Using our neocortex, we can look at the situation from multiple perspectives and we can communicate effectively.
If you find yourself experiencing a fast, intense feeling of anger or fear, you are probably having a limbic brain reaction. Your best behavior and decisions will probably not come from the limbic brain. When we experience these intense feelings, the challenge is getting from the back of our brain to the front of our brain.
Decreasing reactivity involves learning to stop your automatic primitive response to some perceived hurt or danger, to move to the front part of your brain, and to make a reasoned and conscious choice, a choice that considers your feelings but is not run by your feelings.
Reducing reactivity involves awareness, practice and feedback. You can develop awareness of how you feel and think when you are reactive. Over time you can develop awareness of what triggers a reaction. In the meantime, naming for yourself that you are having a reaction will help you move to the front part of your brain. With practice you will become more skilled at moving to the front of your brain and making a non-reactive response. To reduce reactivity, you will need feedback, both from observing yourself and from others, regarding how the new practice and behaviors are working.
Try this: When you notice instantaneous and intense feelings, pause. Take a deep breath. Wonder if you are being reactive. Think about what just happened and wonder what might have triggered a reaction. Practice deep breathing and soothing yourself. Try to accurately assess the level of danger. Allow yourself time and perhaps even distance from the situation before you make any decision. Allow experiences of reactivity to be your growing edge in learning more about yourself.