Control your reactions — and determine your destination

Your thoughts determine how you feel; for example, if you think, “I love my life” on a regular basis, you are likely to feel great.

by Deborah Fairfull — 

One minute you can be going along feeling peaceful and loving towards yourself and the world — then you meet someone who says something, and the next minute you have been completely wrenched from your peace. At this point you have a choice: You can blame the other person or use your reaction as an opportunity to grow and learn in order to experience your world in a more peaceful and loving way.

To do this, it is important to begin to understand your inner world. This involves developing skills for how to observe your thoughts and feelings, rather than being swept away by them. Your thoughts determine how you feel; for example, if you think, “I love my life” on a regular basis, you are likely to feel great. However, if you repeatedly think, “life is a struggle,” you quite possibly will end up sad or depressed.

When you develop the ability to observe your reactions and thoughts in a loving way, they will begin to flow energetically through your body. It is as if you are the chariot driver — your feelings are the chariot and your thoughts are the horses. As the driver, you want to be in charge of the horses; otherwise, they can bolt, leaving you stuck in places you do not want to be.

Your reactions are a wonderful guide to what is really going on in your inner world. Very strong feelings are involved in reacting, which are brain responses associated with survival.

Reactions are caused by a small nut-shaped structure in the brain, known as the amygdala, which scans the environment for signs of danger. It is associated with emotions such as fear, rage, anger and fight or flight. If the amygdala senses danger, it will signal the body to either act aggressively (fight) or withdraw (flight).

For example, the fight response can manifest as road rage and saying things you do not mean (and later wishing you could take them back), while flight may make you feel frozen and unable to find the right words to say.

This survival system is lightning-fast, providing an immediate subconscious reaction to an event. You know when a reaction has taken place; it is when you are emotionally charged and do not feel very good. Words and phrases like “triggered,” “hooked in” and “my buttons were pressed” are often used to describe these situations. Strong physiological changes can take place, such as a pounding heart, shallow breathing, feeling shaky, a tight feeling in your stomach and a fuzzy head. This is because your whole body is getting ready to fight or to take flight.

Reactions develop early in life — when a child’s reasoning centers are not fully developed — so he will process the world in an emotional way. If a child grows up in an aggressive household, the amygdala may give him signals to withdraw from a potentially dangerous situation (flight). This allows the child to draw less attention to himself and perhaps remain physically safe.

The problem occurs when that person finds himself in similar situations as an adult, which can trigger flight reactions, since this pathway was programmed early in the brain and is now automatic. The adult will find himself reacting and withdrawing without wanting to. The reaction, however, is often disproportionate to the situation and can leave him feeling confused and out of control.

Part of the survival response is due to diminished frontal brain activity, which makes it harder to think clearly. Therefore, when the amygdala is overactive, we may overreact to a stimulus, rather than provide a measured response.

Yet by observing our reactions in a loving way, without blaming others, we can start to create new patterns of behavior that will, in the future, allow us to respond rather than react to situations.

If you find yourself reacting badly to a situation, here is what you can do:

  1. Get away from the other person (they could be reacting, too) and allow yourself some space to process the reaction.
  2. Ask yourself how you are feeling. For example, are you angry or hurt?
  3. Learn to simply observe this feeling with love (no judgment or blame). In the past, you may have had good reason to feel like this, but your feelings were not validated.
  4. Acknowledge and validate the feeling, whatever it may be.
  5. In the process of containing and observing the feeling, an unconscious belief or attitude may come to the surface which is fueling your anger such as, “I hate men.” This attitude is probably not going to support a healthy present-day relationship with a man, and could lead to other problems.
  6. Once you are aware of the thought (awareness is the key to growth), you can change it to something that supports you, such as, “I love men,” which will manifest in more fulfilling relationships.

Awareness of your inner world, over time, will allow you to understand your subconscious and the thoughts that are often blocking your way to peace and happiness. When you engage in this process, you can begin to take charge of your horses and drive the chariot where you would like, arriving safely at your destination.


Deborah Fairfull has been both a student and teacher of psychology and philosophy for more than 20 years and is the author of Bliss Every Day: A Practical Guide to Find Peace and Happiness.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 2, April/May 2011.


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