When we’re being reactive, we act in an instinctive fashion, without much thought or planning, to a stimulus that has a strong emotional valence for us. An example of this is when we go grocery shopping when we’re very hungry, when someone we care about says something hurtful, or when we fear we’ve made a mistake. Our initial reactions tend to be conditioned and automatic, much like a reflex. If we’re unaware of or powerless against these urges, there can be negative consequences to our health and wellbeing as well as in our relationships. Many mindfulness practitioners will tell you that one of the most noticeable benefits of their mindfulness and meditation practice is reduced reactivity.
Mindfulness can help us reduce emotional reactivity by allowing us to meet challenging or enticing experiences with a more open and nonjudgmental attitude (Uusberg et. al. 2016). Over time, the conditioned response is weakened, giving us greater access to higher thinking and overriding the more primitive drive-based or threat-based urges. This increases the likelihood that we will respond consciously, intentionally and with consideration. Mindfulness also helps us to calm the nervous system so that we can pause, notice, and make wise decisions. When we are being responsive to our environment, our actions tend to be more wholistic with an expanded view of the wider ranging consequences, rather than engaging in grasping/clinging or fight/flight/freeze behaviors.
McEwen’s (2007) theory of allostatic load hypothesized that physiological adaptations to chronic stress occur in most organisms to help protect them from immediate harm. However, these adaptations come at a cost over time, including increased vulnerability to stress in response to new perceived stressors. Fortunately, research is showing this can be moderated with the help of mindfulness. A 2019 study of urban firefighters found that greater trait mindfulness was correlated with improved health and wellbeing through the reduction of reactivity to daily stress. An 8-week study of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (Britton et. al. 2012) demonstrated decreased emotional reactivity to social stress, including less anticipatory anxiety and more rapid recovery among individuals with depression.
Steps to consider for mindfully meeting reactivity:
- Develop and maintain a formal practice, training your attention in a protected space that is free from distractions, so that you might have better focus amidst the hubbub of daily life.
- Make a habit of noticing your body sensations, thoughts, feelings and urges as they arise, especially in moments of heightened emotion, so that you can cultivate clearer awareness of inner and outer experience when you are activated.
- Learn to pause and calm your nervous system before responding. Take some deep breaths, ground yourself in the present moment through mindfulness of the senses, or just take a break from the activating experience if possible to give yourself an opportunity to access higher reasoning and be truly present upon your return.
- Connect with the intentions behind your urges. What are you needing in this moment? What are you hoping to accomplish through your words or actions? Are your urges in alignment with your highest values?
A history of trauma, especially early in life, can bring additional challenges. Studies have shown that early childhood trauma can permanently alter the levels of certain stress moderating hormones and the function of certain receptors in the brain resulting in chronic hyper-arousal, greater susceptibility to stress, and slower recovery. The brain becomes more easily hijacked by the more primitive neural structures so that there is less access to higher level thinking and intentional decision making. There is some emerging research indicating that mindfulness-based treatments may be effective in “restoring connectivity between large-scale brain networks among individuals with PTSD” (Boyd et. al. 2018). However, some people with a trauma history may first need to work with a skilled mental health clinician to learn and implement additional strategies for managing these biological challenges in emotional regulation in order to safely experience the full benefits of a mindfulness practice.
Boyd, J. E., Lanius, R. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 43(1), 7–25.
Britton, W. B., Shahar, B., Szepsenwol, O., & Jacobs, W. J. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy improves emotional reactivity to social stress: results from a randomized controlled trial. Behavior therapy, 43(2), 365–380.
De Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–vii.
Smith, B.W., Ford, C.G. & Steffen, L.E. (2019). The Role of Mindfulness in Reactivity to Daily Stress in Urban Firefighters. Mindfulness 10, 1603–1614.
Uusberg, H., Uusberg, A., Talpsep, T., & Paaver, M. (2016). Mechanisms of mindfulness: The dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring. Biological Psychology.