Reacting versus Responding. How to hit your pause button.

I am the youngest of three siblings and the only girl. It seems I was the master of reaction growing up. Whether my brother turned the channel in the middle of the Brady Bunch, took the last cookie or crept over to my half of the back seat in our Country Squire station wagon; I was at the ready to scream, cry or be a tattle tale. It took very little to get a rise out of Cathy. It turns out that all this reacting was kind of bad for me. I was constantly turning on my Fight or Flight system which, it turns out, is really unhealthy. Reacting versus Responding.  How to hit your pause button.

I just finished Dan Harris‘ book, 10% Happier. Dan is a news anchor and reporter for ABC news. He was on high alert on a constant basis, especially when he was a foreign correspondent. He literally was in Fight or Flight mode in Iraq and Afghanistan. This takes a huge toll on your body. When you are stressed out, it depletes your adrenal glands and destroys your brain. As Mark Hyman wrote in Research, “It shrinks the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain; reduces serotonin; lowers BDNF (brain derived neutrophil factor), which acts like Miracle-Gro for your brain cells; increases inflammation; increases belly fat; lowers thyroid function; and much more.” So the last thing you want to do is turn on the stress switch when it’s not really necessary; like when your big brother takes the last cookie.

So here are some ideas on how to switch from reacting to responding. 6 ways to pause and spare your brain:

1. Rhythm. Try and maintain an even rhythm of breaths. This is kind of like a mini meditation. As in meditation, the focus is the breath. When you focus on breath, it brings equilibrium to everything in your body. It’s hard to get amped up when you are concentrating on your rhythmic breathing. As Hyman wrote, “Your vagus nerve is a very special part of your nervous system that helps you calm your mind and turn on a cascade of healing that can reverse depression and dementia and help sharpen your mind – making old brains young again. ” In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out. Rhythmic breathing helps turn on your vagus nerve and pause your reaction.

2. Aware. Breathing makes you aware of your body. As Dan described, “I feel burning in my chest, my ears are hot.” Make mental notes of awareness. When you label things, it’s much easier to be objective. Hmmm. My stomach is clenched. I feel tension in my shoulders. It keeps the adrenal gland at bay. Letting your mind run amok will do just the opposite. Bring your awareness back to your body. What’s the weather like in here? Is there a storm in your stomach? Is there lightning in your brain? Be aware.

3. Release. Now that you are aware of what is going on, release the tension. This might be difficult. OK. It will be difficult. If your boss just turned down your idea or someone just cut you off in traffic, trying to let go of tension might seem counter intuitive. I actually did this yesterday. There was a big truck on my tail who swerved around me to cut me off. I said to myself, “He must responding to an emergency.” I focused on my breathe, let off the gas, got in the right hand lane and let go of the tension. It’s not worth the adrenal jolt.

4. Silence. Accept silence. I have personally worked on this for years. When I first started interviewing applicants as a Human Resource Coordinator, I would frequently be completely uncomfortable with silence. I’d ask a question and if the response wasn’t immediate, I would rephrase the question, or interrupt and ask a completely different question or (worst of all) finish their sentence. I’ve made huge strides in this, largely through my coach training, I realize now that silence is the space where folks do their best thinking. So get comfortable with it. Create it and accept it.

5. Think. Now that you have your body under control and created some space for silence, you can think. As Dan referred to it, “it’s like getting behind a waterfall”. The water of rushing thoughts is the waterfall, and getting on the backside of that waterfall is where your space is to think without reacting. The adrenal gland is off, you are present in the moment, your body isn’t reacting. So now how do you respond? In a much more forward and solution based way. Instead of trying to steal the cookie back, I might ask my brother if we should bake some cookies and split them. Think through your response.

6. Respond. Bear in mind that sometimes a response is no response. Perhaps a smile and a nod. I learned this many years ago. Sometimes it’s best to be stoic. I learned that folks would deliberately try and get a rise out of me. Well, if I don’t react, they will back off. It’s like stimulus and reaction. If the reaction doesn’t happen, the stimulus will go somewhere else to find someone to fire up. It could also be a solution based response like, “Hey Rick, what do you say we go bake some more cookies?” There is not escalation, just a response.

I realize that accomplishing all 6 steps needs to happen in about 10 seconds. As Dan described, it’s OK if you can’t do this every time. Cut yourself some slack. If you combine this with a meditation practice, you will get better at it over time. How do you press the pause button?

Are You Wearing Armor All Day?

I’ve been listening to Brené Brown‘s  “Power of Vulnerability” for the last few days.  One of the things she talks about is “wearing armor” or suiting up everyday to keep everyone (and I mean everyone) at arm’s length.  I loved it when she compares “suiting up with armor” to putting on Spanx.  I don’t know if you have ever put on Spanx but I’ve attempted it once…or maybe twice and it is an ordeal.  Trust me, it was worse than trying to zip up my Sassoon jeans while lying on a bed gasping for air when I was 15.  So this analogy really hits home.  Duke-of-Burgundy-Suit-Of-Armor-Headshot

It also reminds me of putting on my New York attitude when I was in the big Apple earlier this summer.  You put your sunglasses on, take off your smile and stomp down the street.  That cold “leave me the hell alone” look so that people don’t ask for money and you can stay on your trajectory on the sidewalk with no interruptions or course corrections from anyone.  It’s exhausting.   The antidote is vulnerability.  So how do you lose the armor? 

Here are some tips:

1.  Moment.  Instead of shutting everything out, you need to be present in the moment.  Author Olivia Fox Cabane recommends feeling your toes.  Feeling your toes brings you awareness of the moment.  I remember breaking my arm when I was thirteen.  I remember every moment, smell, sight and taste of the experience of the emergency room.  When you are really in touch with your body, you are really in the moment.  Don’t bother to break your arm, just stay in touch with your toes and you will be in the moment.

2. Eyes.  Notice the color of people’s eyes.  When you are listening to your child, your  client or your spouse, look for the little flecks of color in their eyes. But as Drake Baer wrote in Fast Company, “The Goldilocks of eye contact comes in two flavors: If you’re in a one-on-one setting, hold eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds; while if you’re in a group, shorten that to 3 to 5 seconds.” If you aren’t making eye contact you come across (intentionally or not) as untrustworthy.  So don’t give them an eye exam. and when walking the streets of Manhattan, take off the shades and connect.  Look into their eyes.

3.  Perspective.  When listening to your partner or boss, try and focus on their perspective.  This is not the time to chime in with how you got stuck in traffic for two hours and “please feel sorry for me” rebuttal.  Stay focused on their “story” regardless if you feel like they are viewing from a skewed perspective.  Feel their perspective and embrace it.  This is not the time to fight it.  Regardless of the “lens” you are looking through it’s not their “lens”.  As David Rock says, no two brains are alike, and whatever their viewpoint is, it is what it is.  Accept the other person’s perspective.

4. Nix sympathy.  Don’t respond with sympathy.  I initially found this difficult to comprehend.  As Brené says in her CD, when you empathize you get into the hole with your friend and help them back out, when you sympathize, you stand at the edge of the hole, stare down at your friend and say you are sorry they are in the hole.  Essentially, sympathizing let’s you raise your self above the person and let them wallow in the suffering.  I think there is a place for sympathy (i.e. funerals) but if you want to really help your friend that just got dumped by her boyfriend, it’s not the time for sympathy.

5. Respond.  Instead of sympathy, respond with empathy.  The easiest way to do this is to label the other person’s feelings.  “I can see you are upset that your boyfriend dumped you”.  “You are obviously frustrated that you had to cancel the meeting”. Labeling works from a brain perspective in that it clarifies  what you heard and lets them know whether or not you got it right.  They might respond, “I’m not frustrated; I’m angry”.  But it makes sure you are on the same page.  You have identified with their perspective and you’ve been open enough to “label” the feeling.  Respond to the feeling with empathy.

Being more present and vulnerable is work.  It’s not easy.  Take one step at a time.  You will get there.  Eventually, you will be able to leave your armor at home.

What are you guarding against?