Use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sometimes complete strangers may cause you to feel strong emotions. They may evoke some event or person from your past without you realising. Use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting to these strange emotions. Don’t be taken by surprise by feelings that seem to appear from nowhere. Stop reacting as if it’s still the past, and use mindfulness instead. 

You’ll build on skills of mindful observation; noticing without reacting.

Watching others can cause strong emotions

Often you can be swamped by emotions for no apparent reason. For example, you may suddenly feel sad when you see a couple ignore each other at a party. And yet, you’re not conscious of any stress in your present relationship.

However, unconsciously you were reminded of your distress in the past, when your ex ignored you at parties. 

Sometimes it’s hard to see objective reality in these situations. We interpret events through the lens of our own experience.

“Truth” depends on your perceptions

Everyone sees the world and what others do through their own perceptions. In effect, there’s no one truth when it comes to how we interpret what’s happening around us. 

Example 1: Max and John

Max is struggling to reach the bar in a crowded down-town pub. He accidentally jostles John, who spills his drink. Max didn’t even see John in the crush. He only knew he’d bumped into someone. 

But John believes Max bumped him on purpose. Now John is threatening to deck Max.

Max didn’t mean to bump John

Mas thinks what happened was out of his control. He just lost his balance in the crush of people. He was going to apologise when John confronted him.

John thinks Max pushed him deliberately

John has instantly flipped into full-on anger. He’s reacting as he used to react when his father was aggressive. He’s not aware his brain has linked this situation with the past. All he knows is that Max seems to be a potential threat.

His thoughts tell him Max had no right to push him, and so Max needs to be taught a lesson. In reality, Max poses no threat at all.

John’s using out-dated information

John’s reactions are completely out of place in this situation. They’re based on out-dated information from his youth. These reactions may have kept him safe when he was younger.

But now they’re no longer helpful. In fact, he often gets into trouble because of his short fuse.

John doesn’t see his reaction as over the top

John doesn’t see his reaction as out of place for the situation. It’s how he always reacts when “someone’s out to get him.” He doesn’t realise his initial perception was misguided. He’s not at risk at all, even though his brain is telling him that he is. 

John doesn’t know he can choose how he reacts. Or that his brain often sends him false messages.

John would benefit from mindfulness

Mindfulness may help John step back and notice his reactions. He’d learn to pause before acting on those initial impressions. Those few seconds would let him see the situation more realistically.

Then he could then decide if he still wanted to react with anger, or with some other emotion.

Mindfulness helps separate the present from the past. John could use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting that would keep him out of trouble. 

If you feel strong emotions observing strangers:

Be interested if you often react to people without even knowing them or their situation. This may be a clue to something that often upsets you. Something that has affected you or others in the past. Something that has the power to hijack your thoughts and emotions. And now you’re on high alert.

1 Your brain is primed to look for danger

Your brain scans present-day situations for any risks or threats. Under stress, your brain remembers the past. Your view of threat is partly shaped by your past experiences.

So the brain may read elements of the past into present-day situations. Sometimes (but not always) emotional reactions are more about the past than the present.

2 You may perceive threat where others don’t

What’s a threat to you may not be a threat to someone else. They’ve had different experiences to you. What worries you may not worry them. So they may not understand why you’re feeling such strong emotions. But something has triggered your reactions, and often that is a reminder of the past. 

3 Your reactions may be stronger than needed

If these are echoes from the past, your emotions may be far stronger than needed right now. Or they may not even be relevant in this situation, at this time. 

The challenge:

To separate the present from the past

How do you know if you’re reacting to what’s happening right now? Or if your reactions are overlaid with traces of the past? One clue:

If your reactions seem over the top.

For example, you feel intense sadness when you watch a mother and child playing. Or you feel intense anger when a father mildly scolds his teenage son.

These are unexpectedly strong reactions in these situations. You may have greater awareness of issues around parenting, or issues of fairness and justice in general.

This awareness may or may not relate to your past in some way. It may relate to your childhood, young adulthood or the recent past. Or even to something you’ve observed in someone else’s life, or on TV.

In any case, it’s something that brings up strong emotion for you.

Which issues seem significant for you?

Use mindfulness to notice when you have unusually strong reactions.

What issues are being discussed? What behaviours of others may be triggering your reactions?

Notice what “hotspots” cause you to be more emotional. Then you can use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting. 

Regulate your emotions with mindfulness

Note down the types of situations that trigger these thoughts and emotions. Accept them when they occur, rather than being surprised.

Focus on breathing slowly and evenly, rather than trying to get rid of the emotion itself. Use the observer stance to notice the ebb and flow of emotion.

Allow yourself some breathing space to notice your thoughts. Resist the urge to react quickly with more emotionally charged thoughts. Step back mentally. Breathe slowly and steadily, and slow down what you’re doing.

Take a few moments to think before you act. Ask yourself: are you reacting to something happening now, or to something that happened in the past?

If you’re confusing past and present:

If you are reacting to the past, your reactions now may be greater than the present situation needs. 

People may often say that you overreact to “trivial” situations. If so, it may be worth exploring if this has relevance to you.

You don’t have to stifle your beliefs about fairness or justice, or other important issues. But sometimes you may be fighting battles you don’t need to fight. Others may not be trying to upset you or get at you. Or you may have misinterpreted what happened.

Conserve your valuable energy for the battles that really matter.

Do what works best

Mastering your own emotions means choosing the best strategy to achieve what you want to achieve.

If you confuse the past and the present, you may sometimes see offences in the present where none were intended. Then you may become emotionally distressed. Each episode of emotional turmoil uses mental, physical and emotional energy.

By reducing these episodes, you’ll have more energy for activities that bring greater fulfillment. Use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting. 

Misinterpretations happen with stress

When you’re under stress, you’re more likely to lose empathy for others. Perhaps you’re tired, hungry, or under time pressure. You may be ill, have money worries, or live in substandard housing. You may have difficult people to deal with on a daily basis.

That makes it hard to keep things in perspective. You’re more likely to view what others do as being deliberately aimed at you. 

Leaping to conclusions when you’re on edge

When we’re stressed or unhappy, we often race to the most negative conclusions first. We may assume others are always out to get us or upset us. 

Unfortunately, our more reasonable thoughts take a little longer to develop than negative ones. But by then, we’ve already decided our first assumption was right. So then we don’t bother to think of all the possible explanations for what happened.

We settle for the most obvious or easiest answer, and don’t give others the benefit of the doubt. And we can react instantly without thinking.

Example 2: Your ex yells at your kids a lot

Your kids say they’re scared of their dad when they’re at his place. You’re worried he’ll lose it with them one day.

When you had kids you vowed you’d give them a good home life. You feel guilty and ashamed that you’ve let them down. So when you see another father scold his teenage son, your brain goes into overdrive. 

You imagine this father Jake being abusive to his son Marty at home. And you imagine the son’s terror and panic. You want to protect Marty the way you want to protect your own kids.

So you storm over to Jake and shout at him to stop abusing Marty. They both turn around and stare at you as if you’re crazy. Marty laughs and jokes that his dad couldn’t swat a fly. You stutter out an apology for having misread the situation.

You misinterpreted what happened

In fact, Jake and his son Marty have a strong and loving bond. All kids try to push the boundaries with their parents. Today, 16-year-old Marty decided to push Jake a bit too hard.

His mates want him to go on a road trip, but Jake thinks Marty is too young. So he tells Marty he’ll have to wait a year or two. He’s fed up with Marty’s grumbling and tells him to drop the subject.

That’s when you heard Jake raise his voice slightly.

Jake’s voice sounded harsher and louder to you than it really was. You saw Marty’s reaction and assumed it was fear. Actually he was just annoyed and sulky. 

Deep down, Marty was relieved Jake had put his foot down. He was scared by the thought of the road trip. Now he could save face and say his dad wouldn’t let him go.

But your reactions were affected by your past experiences with your ex. You didn’t really know what was going on between Jake and Marty.

Not all strong emotions relate to the past

It’s important to distinguish between emotions relating to the past, and those that relate to the immediate situation. That’s where you can use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting. 

Use observation of others to reflect on the thoughts and emotions triggered by their behaviours. For the present, stick to observing people you don’t know. This could be in a cafe, in a mall, library, shop or sitting in the park. (Of course, take note of any COVID restrictions currently in force.)

Be a neutral observer

Be a neutral observer, and don’t take part in anything you see. Also be tactful and unobtrusive while observing others: don’t make prolonged eye contact, or stare at others. Move your gaze around, and bring it back to a book or your phone regularly.

Practise observing how others interact and notice any thoughts and feelings that come up. Accept and be curious about any thoughts and emotions that seem unusually strong. Maintain the attitude of an interested observer.

Note down what you observe in yourself

Take note of what triggered strong emotions.

What was happening at the time?
Who was involved? (Give general descriptions; e.g. middle-aged woman, girl of about 10.)
Who said what?
Who did what?
What happened in the end?

Take a mindful note of what thoughts come up as you observed others.

Review when you felt strong emotions

later, look over what you’ve written down. Do the situations in which you felt strong emotions have anything in common? And what kinds of emotions did you feel?

What kinds of thoughts did you feel? Were they reasonable for the situation? Or do you feel they related somewhat to past issues or concerns?

The next challenge:

To observe situations in which you know some people.

Insights from the above exercises may prove helpful. You may be better prepared for some of your emotional reactions. You may be aware of emotions that don’t fit the current situation.

Use your new insights to step back from your normal reactions. Use the observer stance to watch your emotions instead of letting them build. Imagine other ways of reacting to situations in which you are very emotional.

Use mindfulness to learn new ways of reacting, and achieve greater emotional mastery. 

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