What is the difference in responding and reacting?  While the distinction may seem to be one of semantics, the impact of each in your life can be huge because reacting is an instinctual behavior directed by the reptilian brain, and responding is a conscious choice involving input from the more evolved brain.

In his book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson explains how the two differ in your brain.  To simplify drastically, the human brain evolved in stages beginning with the reptilian brain, the brainstem, which is primarily concerned with avoiding harm. Next, the mammalian brain, the limbic system, developed which focuses on approaching rewards.  Finally, the human brain, the cortex, formed which is all about attachment.  In every human today, these three systems are constantly at work.

The Difference In Your Brain

When anything happens in the environment to cause you feel the slightest bit threatened, ranging from someone cutting you off in traffic to a coworker making a critical remark, your reptilian brain activates in the fight or flight reactive mode.  A million years ago, this was a good thing to keep our ancestors alive; however, in today’s world, it happens all too often.  Whenever you are pressured, worried, irritated, or disappointed this same mechanism kicks in which not only feels crummy and can lead to anxiety and depression but is lousy for your physical health as chronic stress contributes to a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

In this reactive mode, your avoiding brain expresses fear and anger.  The approaching brain reverts to a scarcity perspective which manifests as greed ranging from longing to addiction. The attaching system moves into a position of hurt which may include feelings of abandonment, worthlessness, or loneliness.

When you feel safe and fulfilled, your brain’s avoidance system is calm, the approaching drive is content, and the attachment orientation is caring.  In this responsive mode, your brain is soothed, joyful and replenished.The good news is that this is the natural, resting state of your brain and where you want to be for happiness and health. The bad news is that too many of us spend most of our time in reactive mode.

Reacting is instinctual.  Responding is a conscious choice.  When something happens, our body is going to react automatically regardless.  The trick is to become aware of this initial reaction, resist doing anything, involve your higher intelligence by considering options, possible ramifications, who you want to be, and what is going to be in your best interest, and, then, choose how to respond.

In the article, Responding vs. Reacting, J. Loeks writes:

The act of responding requires one to look at the circumstance, identify the problem or situation, hear what is happening and reflect. That reflection can be for a moment, five seconds, one hour, two days or longer. The time frame doesn’t matter. What matters is that you stopped and put an effort to think and suspended judgment. It is a conscious act and shows that you are willing to listen or observe. This ‘gap’ between the circumstance and your behavior is what contributes to gaining a sense of control in your life. Once a person can identify that in responding they actually have a choice in the manner, he/she will start to realize that they are able to make better decisions. The key is that pause. If the situation requires an immediate action, then just take a deep breath first. This alone can help one gain a semblance of control and make one choose an alternative statement or action that can make a big difference in an outcome of a situation.”

The Difference In Your Life

Learning to respond rather than react, which has taken years, has made a tremendous positive difference in my life. I used to be incredibly reactive which could make a bad situation or even a good situation worse really quickly and lead to damaging consequences.  For example, I tried to commit suicide which resulted in a serious brain injury and losing custody of my sons.  Isn’t trying to kill yourself the ultimate reaction?

An article I read said that the difference between responding and reacting was about ten seconds.  For me, it can be much longer and, even then, I still don’t get it right sometimes.  It is amazing to me that I can sit on something for days, being good and not reacting, meditating on the issue and consciously thinking about how I want to respond, only to fire off an email that I have convinced myself is non-reactive which I immediately realize that it is exactly that after hitting “send.”

Learning to become nonreactive is a continual challenge, but it does get easier the more you override the reptilian brain engaging your responsive brain.  Rick Hanson writes in Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time:

Each time you rest in your brain’s responsive mode, it gets easier to come home to it again.  That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together”: stimulating the neural substrates of calm, contentment, and caring strengthens them.  This also makes it harder to be driven from home; it’s like lengthening the keel of your mental sailboat so that no matter how hard the winds of life blow, you stay upright, not capsized, and keep on heading towards the lighthouse of your dreams.”

The responsive mode of your brain can be activated, encouraged, and reinforced through such practices as mindfulness (see blog: The Meaning Of Mindfulness), meditation (See blog: The Myth And Magic Of Meditation), and coming into the present moment (See blog: All Right, Right Now).

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/13911066@N06/

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  1. Wow. This is something that I’ve known without understanding the mechanics behind it. I know that meditation, mindfulness, and observing my thoughts and emotions help me make wiser choices and that I respond better. Thanks for the science and knowledge. It will help to explain the concept to others.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I am glad you found this post helpful, Dan. I find that knowing the science behind the spiritual practices helps me approach changing my behavior more diligently and is great to have handy to inform people that insist this is just “airy fairy” stuff! 🙂

      • hi Debbie – agreed! It basicially requires a strong spiritual or mindful practice to stop doing what we want to do (reactionary) and respond calmly and collectively. Especially when it comes to the workplace, the sending of emails etc haha I wish email providers would bar you from responding for 3 minutes after you receive an email in case you wanted to react angrily instead of respond thoughtfully 🙂

        • Debbie Hampton Reply

          Vishnu, if you need only three minutes, you are doing GREAT! I literally, sit on something for days and still react, but I am working on it…and getting MUCH, MUCH better! 🙂

  2. That old Reptilian Brain still takes on a dominant role in our everyday lives. You can really see the reptilian brain in all its glory during rush hour traffic.

    One of the best things I ever learned was being able to calm down the reptilian brain.

    Take Care.

  3. This is a great article! And could not be more timely! I have been talking about this on Facebook ecumenicus (albiet in a bit more poetic terms). Will be sharing this there – with thanks!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thank you for the kind words, Peggy. I really want people to know that it has been scientifically proven that, by changing their thoughts, they can change their physical brains, and, in turn, their lives! It is not just a bunch of “airy fairy” crap!

  4. Absolutely! Neuroscience behind prefrontal cortical mediation of emotion is getting to be quite vast – the effects of meditation and contemplative prayer and behavioral comparisons of empathy and compassion, anxiety and serenity. It is very exciting, because it gives us empirical (objective measures) evidence for what could only be described previously in subjective terms. No airy fairy crap!! 🙂

  5. Judy M. Hampton Reply

    Again, well done, Darling Daughter. You have become a master of non reactive response and I applaud all the hard work you have done that has made this possible. Love to you. Mom

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  21. wow I was looking for quite long time for such a book / guide. thanks ur saving me everytime again and again!

    • btw is everything that you are stating here is stated in your book as well? only now I realised you’ve wrote a book 😡 [maybe try to emphaziz a bit more over your site [under any thread or so]

      • Yes, the book is a compilation of material from the blogs…and more. The book is on the right panel on every page of the website! Guess you just missed it. 🙂

  22. Also do you have any particular exercises or things to do in order to respond and no react? for example breath 10secs in and so on? so I mean direct exercises when ‘it’s happening’?
    Regards 🙂

    • What you are really doing is practicing mindfulness. Any exercise stressing to come into the present, breathe, and pause will do it. Rick Hanson’s book “Just One Thing” has many simple, practical exercises. He has an online course that’s awesome too.

      • Hey do you mean Hardwiring Happiness – Rick Hanson or it’s a different book also what do you think is a better one or it’s differnt one , one on the response/react and the other about re-wire happiness also do you suggest it?

    • What you are really doing is practicing mindfulness. Any exercise stressing to come into the present, breathe, and pause will do it. Rick Hanson’s book “Just One Thing” has many simple, practical exercises. He has an online course that’s awesome too.

  23. I’ve come to realize that just as destructive a volatile reaction can be, so can the reaction to simply shut down. I have retreated so far into myself for so long and am just beginning to see how damaging it has been for my life inside and out. Learning to respond is literally a life changing journey for me. So glad I found this article.

    • Sylynna,

      I agree with you. Stifling a response and shutting down is also not good. It is the seed of for unhealthiness and unhappiness. Learning to use your emotions for you instead of against you will change your life.

    • I completely agree with you Sylynna. I either explode or completely shut down or react by giving the cold shoulder which is just as destructive. As Debbie writes so well, it’s a long process and I am also still trying to figure it out. Thanks for the great article, Debbie.

      • Michele, it’s a long, learning process. Took me years and even now, sometimes, I still react without thinking. Becoming aware and conscious of your behavior is always the first step. Keep at it. 🙂

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  25. If you want to be less reactive and more responsive try holding your breath for as long as you can then release. It helps you to deal with pressure for longer. except you will be the one in control. so you will be more immune to it. just time yourself and take baby steps. And remember not to force it too much until you are actually comfortable with it. I got this idea from Wim Hoff aka the ice man. check his videos out. you will be impressed. he can deal with stress in such away that he was able to climb Mount Everest in wearing nothing but shorts. It might be a bit hardcore for you ladies but if you take it slowly i believe you can do it. Good luck!

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  27. I had a massive stroke 12 yrs ago, so I REALLY appreciate you mentioning the brain injury you suffered. For those of us with TBI, it’s more difficult to train our brains not to react, but respond. I’m going to check out your book.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kyle. Having a brain injury does make impulsiveness and reacting more of a challenge. It was for me at first. However, you can also view it as a chance to intentionally sculpt your and how it rewires itself instead of letting the world and your experiences do it for you. All the best to you. Let me know how you like the book! The Sex, Suicide, and Serotonin has more about the brain injury and my recovery. I hope you enjoy and learn!

  28. This is such a sensible thing I am seeing on the net for a long time. All along I sub-consciously could sense the critical difference between reacting and responding. But your article has brought out the whole message co clearly and lucidly. Thanks!

  29. Morrell pace Reply

    You Are Awesome… Keep it coming, I just might grow up before I’m 100…
    Love Pace …

    • Thank you, Pace. It’s nice to hear that. Not everyone thinks so. But hey! That’s OK. 🙂

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  34. I learned long ago to take a breathe before going into reaction mode. It’s made all the difference in how I operate in life, making experiences so much less stressful. Great thoughts here Debbie.

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