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The Secret Tool to Manage Your Knee-Jerk Reactions

How to douse your inner firestorms and chill under pressure in the New Year.

If you’re like most people, you sizzle when disappointments and letdowns come at lightning speed from all angles. Pressures, obstacles, interruptions, delays, rejections and unrealized expectations can feel like pummeling bullets, and you hit the roof before you know it. Perhaps something your spouse or partner says or does besieges you with emotion, sending you over the edge. And after the damage is done you regret it. We now know more about why it’s difficult to control those hair-trigger reactions and the little-known secret to managing them.

Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash
It's Difficult, But Not Impossible, to Stay Calm When Things Fall Apart
Source: Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

Blame it on Mother Nature

The answer resides in Mother Nature who elegantly designed your mind to protect you at all costs. She could care less about your happiness. She’s more interested in marinating you in stress juices to keep you alive than in making your life easy. You have a hard-wired inner critic with beliefs and expectations that bludgeons you from one upsetting situation to the next. Your mind filters the present through past experience so you won’t make the same mistake twice (You’ll only touch a hot stove once). And as if that’s not enough, you have a built-in negativity bias that causes you to overestimate threats with automatic negative thoughts that dwarf positive ones.

When you’re in a situation with a lot of information to pay attention to, your negativity bias focuses on threats instead of opportunities. Forget the blooming azaleas along the roadside. If you don’t see the car zooming at 90 miles an hour, you’re road kill. Your mind constantly seeks pleasure and avoids pain. And it learns more quickly from pain than pleasure. You’re more likely to store a negative memory after just one episode than a positive one—all in the name of survival. You probably remember where you were on 9/11. But where were you the next week at the same time? You’re more likely to remember the time you fell out of the tree and broke your arm than all those times you climbed the tree. Or that bad-tasting medicine your mom forced down you? Remember that?

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Most of us believe our automatic negative thoughts and react on them simply because we think them. “Yes, but what about the happiness I’ve been seeking all my life?” you ask. If she could talk, I imagine Mother Nature would respond with something like, “That’s where your job comes in. I’ve done my part. Now grow up.”

Although you couldn’t survive without your negative tilt, it can cause you unnecessary stress, limit your possibilities, and keep you from believing in yourself. To stay out of harm’s way, you need your negativity bias. But if you want to be happy, you must do your part to complete Mother Nature’s work. Your job is to go beyond primitive survival reactions and refuse to take the bait every time life’s curve balls clobber you. Your neighbor reeves up his weed eater when you’re napping. The crying baby behind you on the long flight is inconsolable. A shopper pushes her cart in front of you in the grocery store line. Your spouse splurges on expensive items without discussing the purchases with you. Your dog pees on the new carpet.

Refrain from Biting the Hook

It’s natural to have an automatic reaction to life’s inevitable annoyances, threats, and hardships. Your DNA carries an evolutional heritage called the lizard brain or limbic system (a complex group of brain structures responsible for the formation of memories and emotions related to survival such as anxiety, fear, and anger) that originally switched on at breakneck speed to help our ancestors survive attacks from other tribes or wild animals. The laid back ancestors who didn’t worry about danger were killed off by unsuspected attackers, but vigilant ancestors survived because of the lizard brain’s diligence. In addition to physical safety, your 21st Century lizard brain kicks into survival mode to protect you from threats and worries over psychological concerns: financial pressures, tight deadlines, job performance, abandonment by your main squeeze, and other uncertain outcomes.

You can feel the exact moment when your lizard brain dumps a tonic of enzymes into your bloodstream, making your heart pound. A tidal wave of adrenaline and cortisol surges through you, hijacking your rational thoughts, leaving your emotions in control. You sizzle on the inside or rant and rave on the outside. Although it’s a challenge to regulate your hair-trigger reactions, it’s possible to douse those primitive firestorms and stay chill under pressure.

Neither you nor I are powerful enough to fend off unwelcome events. They will slug us no matter what. Although it’s counter intuitive, we might as well use them to our advantage. Kayakers say the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a hydraulic—a turbulent, funnel-shaped current—is to relax, and it will spit you out. But thanks to Mother Nature, your primitive, automatic reaction is to fight against the current. And that can keep you stuck, even drown you. Similarly, the way to get unstuck is to welcome and observe the simmering reaction with curiosity. Let it come and go without personalizing, resisting, or identifying with it. And eventually it floats away.

Although I’m not always able to practice this approach, one Sunday afternoon brought success as I exited a freeway. The driver in a red car that had been in front flipped me the bird. I was astonished at first then a flash of anger rose up in me. The anger wanted me to yell obscenities and return the gesture. Instead of focusing on the woman in the car, I watched my angry urge from a dispassionate bird’s-eye view until it calmed down. Staying chill made me feel as if I’d hit a home run. It’s a wonderful feeling when you can stay on the Launchpad while someone else is blasting into orbit. You feel more in charge of yourself and your life.

Here’s the deal. There’s a space somewhere in-between a frustrating situation and your primitive reaction. The key is finding that sweet spot. Imagine someone scolds you on your cell phone, and you hold it away from your ear without reacting. Similarly, when you catch yourself in an unpleasant emotional state—such as anger, worry, or frustration—acknowledge your knee-jerk urge to react and hold it at arm’s length. Observe it from afar just as you might notice a blemish on your hand.

Suppose you have an urge to yell at your weed-eater wielding neighbor or your carpet-peeing pooch. Find your sweet spot and pause, take a breath, and observe the primitive urge with curiosity as an ancient part of you. As you watch it, you realize the urge isn’t you at all. After observing the simmering firestorm without automatically reacting, you’ll notice that it flickers out in a short amount of time. The present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of your internal reaction helps you chill. After a period of dedicated practice, you’re able to rewire your brain to remain cool under pressure. As you practice stilling your mind and body under the most challenging circumstances, you start to notice that frustrating situations are less likely to get under your skin.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice If . . . We Could Take the Longest Journey?

The longest journey you and I will ever make is the eighteen inches between our head and heart. Automatic reactions such as impatience, judgment, frustration, and anger reside in your survival mind. When you live in that place too long, it keeps you safe from harm but blocks you from happiness. When you take the journey from your survival mind to your heart, something inside shifts and neutralizes your misery.

Are you up for the toughest challenge of all? It’s a tall order. Staying calm when things around you are falling apart isn’t easy but not impossible, either. A kind word diffuses a sour attitude. Calm in the face of hysteria has a soothing effect. Compliments reverse aspersions. Heartspeak allows you to act instead of react in upsetting situations.

Consider this: what if you could love everything that comes between you and your agenda—everything that disturbs the tranquility of your soul? What if you tried forgiving the shopper who unknowingly steps in front of you in line, the driver who cuts you off in traffic, the ingrown toenail, the itchy shirt, your party-hardy neighbor, the ringing phone, the air conditioner on the blink, the swimmer who splashes you during a belly dive, the roaring motorcycle, the offline computer, the crying baby on an airplane, the barking mutt next door, the mosquito bites up and down your legs, or the family member who fails, forgets, or makes a mistake?

One way to do your part to make the world a better place is to consider that a piece of you resides in every person you meet. Every person on the planet who makes you miserable or causes you to react, is like you—a human being, most likely doing the best they can, deeply loved by their parents, a child, or a friend. And how many times have you accidentally stepped in front of someone in line? Cut someone off in traffic? Splashed someone in a pool? Interrupted or disturbed someone? Made a mistake, failed at something, or forgot? Bumped into someone in a crowd? Snapped at somebody? Freaked out over a missed plane or a broken pipe?

We’re all flawed human beings, but softness (acting) contains more strength and power than hardness (reacting). As you begin the New Year, I challenge you to set the compass of your heart by taking one day to experiment with loving everything and everyone (including yourself) that makes you want to flip your lid. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask, “Could I have done that?” Then watch what happens inside, how forgiving you feel toward yourself and others, and how much happier you are at the end of the day. The secret to managing your knee-jerk reactions is learning to act instead of react—no matter how difficult the circumstances—by loving everything that gets in your way.

More from Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D.
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