STRONGER TOGETHER: Reacting vs. Responding—The Neuroscience of Human Behaviour

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Last updated: 29/04/2024

"STRONGER TOGETHER" is a weekly column where Tanya explores key issues. This week Tanya discusses the crucial difference between reacting and responding in life’s pivotal moments and how it can affect the quality of our personal and professional relationships.

By IMPACT Community Services Managing Director Tanya O'Shea

Tanya O'Shea, IMPACT Community Services Managing Director

Life’s journey is punctuated by moments that demand our attention and elicit our reactions. It is in these instances that the distinction between reacting and responding becomes clear. Though they may seem synonymous, the subtle differences between these two actions can significantly influence our interactions, relationships, and overall well-being.

Reacting is an instinctive action, a spontaneous response to stimuli without the luxury of pause for consideration of consequences or alternatives. It is the amygdala’s primal impulse, a survival instinct that operates on a hair-trigger, compelling us into immediate action. This response, fuelled by urgency, is reminiscent of our ancestors’ need to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of danger. So, in the unlikely event that a tiger is chasing you through Bourbong Street, you'll appreciate the instinctive nature of the amygdala's fight or flight response.

While our primal reactions remain unchanged, the context in which they are invoked has evolved. In the modern world, the amygdala’s reactions are often triggered by less life-threatening situations, but they can still lead to escalated tensions or regrettable outcomes. For example, when a driver cuts you off, the instinct to honk angrily or tailgate is a reflexive reaction driven by emotion.

In contrast, responding is a conscious choice, a deliberate action taken after a moment of mindfulness and self-awareness. It involves assessing the situation, recognising our emotions, and deciding on a thoughtful course of action. The prefrontal, responsible for higher order thinking and executive function, facilitates this process. It allows for rational analysis, decision-making, and emotional regulation.

Unlike the amygdala’s immediate reactions, the prefrontal cortex (also known as the CEO of the brain) encourages us to consider the broader context before acting. In the traffic scenario, responding would involve taking a deep breath, allowing the other driver to merge, and letting the event go quickly without expensing unnecessary energy thinking about it or sharing your version of the incident later with others. Simply, LET IT GO.

The interaction between the emotional (amygdala) and the ‘CEO’ brain (prefrontal cortex) highlights the fundamental difference between reacting and responding. Reacting is quick and instinctual, while responding is measured and thoughtful. Understanding this neural interplay illuminates the evolutionary role of reacting and the cognitive advancement of responding. While reacting may have been crucial for our ancestors’ survival, responding signifies the evolution of human adaptability and intelligence.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve received in my career is to ‘just sleep on it.’ Creating a buffer between an event and my response has consistently proven to be an effective strategy to avoid impulsive reactions that don’t reflect my true self. It allows me to show up in a purposeful, intentional way that moves towards achieving better outcomes, rather than succumbing to emotionally charged reactions that can obscure my genuine intentions.

As we navigate the complexities of modern life, each interaction presents an opportunity to put this wisdom into practice and unlock opportunities for personal development and growth. By embracing the art of response, grounded in mindfulness and self-awareness, we open ourselves to deeper connections, increased resilience, and greater awareness.

So, the next time you feel the urge to react in the heat of the moment, remember the power of pausing, reflecting, and allowing yourself the space to respond with clarity and compassion. In doing so, you not only honour your own authenticity but also nurture deeper connections and foster growth in yourself and those around you. Just sleep on it, and let your responses reflect your best self.

Please note: This website may contain references to, or feature images, videos, and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have passed away.

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