In his book, “Full Castrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the difference between a stress reaction and a stress response. A stress reaction is when we react habitually and automatically to a situation. We aren’t aware of what we’re doing – it’s a knee jerk reaction.
An example might be getting stuck in traffic and not being aware that our stomachs are in knots and our hands have a death grip on the steering wheel. Our minds can get busy imagining all sorts of terrible things that could happen because we’re late without even realizing that our thoughts are out of control.
A stress response means that you give yourself a few seconds to stop, become conscious of the situation, and then choose how you want to respond. Just giving yourself those few seconds of awareness changes the situation into one in which you have more influence and control. Part of this process is bringing awareness to your thoughts and feelings as well.
This is not easy, but if you can start to notice your habitual ways of reacting to difficult situations (when you are running late, when your kids are fighting, when you can’t find your keys), you may begin to catch yourself in that moment between stimulus and response. Or even after you have started to respond in unconscious, not so helpful ways. Then you can take a few slow breaths and “choose” to respond in a more positive, hopeful, and healthy way.