How to become non-reactive

When it comes to mental strength training, learning how to become non-reactive is where the rubber really meets the road. It’s in these moments when we get caught up in strong emotions, triggered by other people and situations, that we need to draw on our mental strength the most.

So, how do we do it? How do we learn to respond instead of reacting? How do we stay centred instead of being taken over by our emotions? In this week’s episode of Mentally Stronger I’m going to give you a practical, evidence-based technique you can use to remain resilient and calm in those tricky moments.

Hit play to listen or read the article below to learn how to ‘name it to tame it’.

The science behind reactivity

When you feel threatened or scared in any way (whether it’s a rude comment, a misfortune, or an argument) a part of the brain called the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response. 

Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being harmed or killed by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight-or-flight response evolved in our brains. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows us to react quickly without thinking. It sends out signals to release stress hormones that prepare our bodies to fight or run away. 

The amygdala can also disable the brain’s frontal lobes – the more evolved and what some refer to as the ‘smart’ part of our brain. This is the part of your brain that controls your ability to reason and think clearly and objectively. 

When this happens you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been ‘hijacked’ by the amygdala.

So of course, fight or flight happens in response to direct threats, but it can also be triggered by psychological threats. Such as when we think worrying or anxious thoughts. But there is a powerful way that we can train in calming the amygdala and bringing the frontal lobes back online.

That way you can respond instead of reacting, ensuring you take wise and skilful actions.

A technique to help you become non-reactive

We can become non reactive by using a tool psychiatrist Dan Siegel likes to call the ‘name it to tame it’ technique.

Research shows that by mentally noting or labelling difficult emotions as they arise, you can experience up to a 50% reduction in the intensity of emotion. Not only that, but it brings the brain’s frontal lobes back online so that we can become less reactive and think more clearly again. Instead of reacting, and saying and doing things you might later regret, now you can respond with calm, clarity and effectiveness. You can speak wisely, act deliberately and stay cool under pressure.

It’s a really useful thing to be able to apply in daily life in all kinds of situations, from traffic jams to arguments with your spouse, to handling a difficult customer or co-worker.

By labelling an emotion in this way, what we’re doing here is creating a little bit of mental space. Usually we get so caught up in, and identified with, an emotion that we lose perspective and lose ourselves in it. It takes you over.

By recognising a strong emotion when it arises and naming it, we create a space in which we can step back from the emotion and observe it in a different way. Then we can respond instead of reacting to it. So, to be clear, this is not about getting rid of the emotion, it’s about unhooking yourself from it so that you’re still able to act with awareness, wisdom and strength despite it.

How to ‘name it to tame it’

So here’s how you can start using this the next time you feel the surge of a strong emotion, whether it be sadness, fear, anger, or shame.

Try taking a deep slow breath to calm your nervous system, and then ‘name it to tame it.’ Just say to yourself mentally ‘Ok, anger is here’, or ‘Ahhhh, fear is here’, or ‘Sadness is here’ – whatever the emotion is. 

With this one simple practice, you develop a new capacity to find your centre and your strength in difficult moments and take wise actions. When you have a difficult conversation with a loved one and you feel anger arising, you’re able to pause before saying something you may later regret. 

When anxiety arises when you’re about to go on a date or do a presentation, you’ll be able to observe and name the fear without letting it take control. 

The more we practice noticing our emotions without being triggered by them or caught up in them, the more able we are to stay grounded in awareness and the qualities that come with it. Like wisdom, calm and inner strength.

This week’s mental strength practice

I really encourage you to give this practice a try for one week and see how it goes for you. I hope that by practising this technique of mentally labelling or naming your experience, you’re able to strengthen your capacity to be non-reactive. And find yourself anchored in a deeper place within yourself, a place of wholeness, calm and ease.

We delve into this technique further in my powerful mental strength program, Headstrong. I invite you to join my waitlist for the next opening date, if you want to get serious about becoming mentally stronger.

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