Learning How to Respond, Instead of React


How do you handle life’s difficult moments?

When stress and anxiety are high, and the path forward is uncertain. Whether it’s in making a crucial business decision, in the midst of an argument with our spouse, or standing on the mound about to throw a pitch; when uncertainty and stress reign, we can either respond or react.

Our brain loves the latter. Reacting is quick and simple. It pushes us towards action and resolving the feeling of angst or anxiety. In moments of stress, our brain is more concerned with resolving the feeling right in front of us, then what will happen in the future.

When we react, we’re more likely to quit, to lose our cool, to freak out and panic. Reacting is about action. It’s as if our brain is saying, “Forget the future! Don’t you hear the alarms? Just do something now!”

Responding is different. Instead of speeding up, it’s slowing down. It’s working through and navigating the situation. It’s feeling anxious and not jumping straight towards taking action or finding an escape.

Our brain loves reacting. Responding takes work. In my new book Do Hard Things I outline what the latest science and the world’s best performers can tell us about learning how to respond. Here are a few insights.

Learning How to Respond

Whenever I discuss this topic with clients, I’m often met with some acronym that they’ve read about that tells them to slow down. For instance, in the military they have the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). These and similar acronyms are helpful. They remind you to slow down.

But they are disconnected from reality. When you’re in the thick of it, thinking about pausing or observing often isn’t realistic. Your brain is headed towards a freak out and you often have a few seconds to catch yourself before you spiral.

What helps you learn how to respond is developing the tools to pull your brain out of the spiral. What the latest psychology research tells us is that when we are headed down the path of reacting, two items occur. First, our world narrows. We get locked-in on the ‘thing’ causing the anxiety. We divert all of our attention to it, the feelings and emotions that come with it are all consuming, and we lose all perspective.

Second, there’s a battle between the areas of our brain that handle processing our sensory feedback and cognitive control, and those that detect and respond to threats. When we head towards reacting, our cognitive control areas go offline, and our threat detecting areas go into hyperdrive. When we narrow, especially on something that causes us stress or duress, our brain gets the message to pay more attention to the threat, and forget about control. It’s this battle between rapidity of action, and slowing down so that you can take in and consider information that the key to navigating a challenge lies.

One of the most effective ways to help us navigate stress and uncertainty, to respond instead of react, is what I call zooming. When we can broaden when we are stuck on the narrow, it keeps our cognitive control area of our brain online, and our stress levels just low enough so that we can calmly, coolly find the best path forward.

Zooming Out

When we drag our attention and focus out of the narrow, our cognition follows. In other words, if we can broaden our perspective, our brain follows. It stops seeing the here and now, the anxiety you feel, or the actions you take as the only way. Broadening allows you to see there are more possibilities. How do we do that? Zoom Out.

Visual Zooming

When we are reacting, our focus of attention gets locked on the thing. We can counteract this by adopting either a soft gaze or panorama view. Both rely on shifting our attention to the periphery. From seeing the whole scene, instead of the single plant right in front of us. Scientists have found that when we enter panorama mode, we experience calmness. Our stress levels go down. The opposite, directing our attention to a singular item, increases physiological arousal.  Broaden your vision to slow the world and your inner chaos down.

Cognitive Zooming

When we narrow, it’s not just our attention that gets stuck, our thinking does too. We’ve all  experienced this. After a meeting, our mind latches on to a negative comment our boss made. We can’t let it go.

When tested for cognitive flexibility under such circumstances, researchers find that even our answers to simple questions get constrained. For example, when asked “what could you use a brick for?” Subjects in studies would respond with obvious answers; “building a wall.” Their creative juices are zero. The way out of this is to imagine you’re trying win the TV game show Family Feud, where you guess how people answered a survey. The first couple answers are obvious, selected by dozens of people. The final one is obscure. An answer that one or two out 100 people said. Thinking about the weird or unusual broadens our thinking. When we think about grinding up a brick and using it as finger paint, that shifts not only our thinking, but also our attention, awareness, and creativity. If you find youself reacting, think of weird stuff.

Linguistic Zooming

How we talk to ourself can also influence whether we stay stuck and react or are able to broaden out. When we use first-person (“I’ve got this!”), we tend to narrow. The focus is on you. Researchers have found that when we switch to third-person (“He’s got this!”) we are able to self-distance. It’s as if our mind interprets our inner dialogue as coming from a friend instead of ourselves. Research shows that distanced self-talk leads to better goal pursuit, and less emotional reactivity. It helps create space, zooming us out, so we can deal with the thing.

Temporal Zooming

When in the midst of dealing with the pain and fatigue of a 10k race, one of my former athletes told me he imagined what it would be like when he finished. As he thought about the relief and excitement from crossing the finish line, he pushed his imagination further, thinking that he was actually just looking back, watching himself run a race that he’d already completed. He called it his “Jedi Mind Trick.” While we may not all possess such imagination superpowers, when we are reacting, we tend to get stuck in the here and now. That can be beneficial, but it can also cause us to over index on our current feelings, and undervalue how our decisions will impact the future. One solution is to imagine the future. Think about what you’ll feel like at the end of the school year, or five years down the line, or when you are finished writing the book manuscript your currently struggling with. Shifting our time frame, allows us to look back on our current experience with a different lens. One of perspective.

Responding is difficult because it takes effort. When faced with stress and uncertainty, the easy choice is often the one right in front of us. To eat the candy bar instead of cooking the vegetables. To lash out at an employee who made a mistake, instead of taking the time to understand the situation. Reacting is easy. It’s often the default choice. The good news is that the more you practice zooming out, the easier it becomes to shift your default path. You delay jumping straight towards reacting. You pause, not because you commanded yourself to do so, but because your brain learns how to keep your rational, cognitive controller online, instead of getting locked in on the supposed threat in front of you.

This was adapted from my new book Do Hard Things. If you want to learn more about the topic, check out the book!

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