Can we respond, rather than react?
In the midst of a very challenging time in our country, there is a turmoil of emotions swirling round in each of us – disbelief, horror, sorrow, sadness, anger, growing anxiety, for some, fear. Things feel very much beyond our own control – in fact completely out of control in some places. The stress hormone cortisol builds up in our bodies, activates our sympathetic nervous system and we are ready to fight in word and deed, or fly as fast as we can. Every fibre of our bodies is on high alert. In the last few days, many lives have probably been saved by the body’s design to readily react to circumstances.
Our ability to react to what is going on around us is rooted in what is going on within our own bodies, minds and hearts. It is linked to the levels of our own hormones, to our own emotions, to meeting our own needs.
I write as someone who is more on the outskirts and not in any immediate danger, and I know there are many others like me. Our high cortisol levels are not necessary to our immediate survival. We do not need to react in seconds.
Extended increased levels of the stress hormone make it difficult for us to access our prefrontal cortex, to think logically, to be creative with our solutions to the very real problems all of us in our country face. Maybe right now is not the most level-headed time to develop solutions to the long-term problems of inequality and poverty. I am aware though that what we do now can so easily deepen the fault lines, make problems more complex and the situation after the current crisis more difficult. If we are all in reaction mode, we may say and do things in person or on social media that we will regret later, that are not actually in line with our life values.
Can we develop an awareness of other people’s needs in the midst of conflict, and respond to those rather than react out of our own needs?
In order to do this, concern for others has to be an integral part of our core beliefs. Our core beliefs need to call us to goodness, beauty and truth, to be worthy of our commitment, so that they give us a strong foundation in crisis. We need a desire to live intentionally, expressing our own core values even when under pressure.
To live intentionally, we also need a self-control that is rooted in regulation of our own nervous system . We have a tendency to share our disregulation – nothing spreads as fast as tension and a bad mood! Can we maintain a calm presence in the midst of the storm, a peace that can ripple out to others around us?
So, in the heat of the moment, just before we react, let’s pause, spend a few seconds on regulating our nervous system to give us access to all parts of our brain, and ask ourselves some questions. Is the action I am about to dive into loving – or constructive, or helpful – is it good for anyone? Is this reaction an expression of my integrity, of commitment to my values? If not, how can I respond instead?