Your good friend says something hurtful; your partner seems remote and uninvolved; your coworker makes a new demand when you’re already overwhelmed.
Stress hormones flood your body, shutting down the rational part of your brain, the neocortex. In an instant, you react.
You insult your friend back or give them the cold shoulder; you accuse your partner or withdraw from them; you resentfully accept the additional work or blow up at your coworker.
In every case, instead of helping you, your internal fight, flight, or freeze reaction makes your situation worse. You become a captive of your own reactivity. I see this scenario often in my work with individual counseling, couples counseling, and anger management therapy.
But mindfulness is the opposite of reactive behavior. Through mindfulness, you can learn to catch and control the impulse that short-circuits your fight, flight, or freeze response. Specifically, these three steps could keep you from escalating a situation—and potentially save your relationships:
1. Find out what provokes you.
Ask yourself: When do I feel the hottest anger? When do I just want to be alone? When do I feel paralyzed to respond? Once you know and understand what primes your stress response, you’ll have an easier time stopping yourself from reacting impulsively.
2. Catch the impulse that precedes your response.
There is always an impulse––a sensation that rises up through your body––that precedes any reaction. Mindfulness can help you identify the clues that alert you to your coming anger—rapid heartbeat, feeling hot, raising your voice, clenching your jaw, irritability, or a monotone voice. When you can pick up on these warning signs, you can give yourself time to make a deliberate choice. In that moment, you are practicing anger management.
3. Control the impulse.