PTSD Therapist

Mindfulness and Relationships: Never React the Same Way

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

FlickR / Vera & Jean Christophe

These are the words Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the horrors of WWII concentration camps, wrote in his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning. In this book, he documents what he went through as both a victim and observer of the concentration camps. However, his book is much more than retelling of a tragic story. It is a first-hand account of what it means to be resilient against all odds. It offers a glimpse of how to bear the seemingly unbearable.

If we took some time to break down Frankl’s quote above, we can first see how he distinguishes between stimulus and response. In traditional psychology, stimulus and response are often words used to describe classical conditioning and Pavlov’s dog who salivates at the sound of a bell, knowing that food is coming. The stimulus is the sound of the bell (or food itself) and the response is the salivation. However, Frankl’s context wasn’t exactly about dogs. He focuses on human need for survival as well as how to both survive and thrive.

In mindfulness, similar words are used to describe that area between stimulus and response. Mindfulness is often said to help build a space of awareness so we can respond to situations (or stimuli) instead of react. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness can be described as a way of consciously focusing the mind in the present moment, without judgment and without attachment to the moment. It is a practice of continuously grounding yourself to what is currently going on. I know the words “present-moment” or “presence” is a vague term that is hard to digest. However, it is really referring to directing attention to the only thing that is happening.

How does this concept of mindfulness then apply to our life? Mindfulness suggests we become aware of those moments where we start to make up stories about why our spouse is ignoring us or what is going to happen with our job if the company structure changes or what happens if we don’t pass a big test. All these thoughts pull us into the past of what was or into the future of what could happen (good or bad). It takes out of the process state and plants us firmly in the content of our thoughts, which more often than not, do not hold true. The key is to realize that the process of thinking is still present-oriented and should be labeled as such. Say to yourself, “This is just thinking” or “I am in the process of thinking”—because the act of thinking, in and of itself, is still in the present moment. What takes us out of the present moment is when we start anchoring ourselves in the content of the thought of what was or what might be.

To understand this concept though, you should understand that the mind is built to think. We are the only creatures in the world who are able to critically think about situations. If you show an animal A=B and B=C, then those are the associations they make. However, a human starts thinking that not only does A=B and B=C, but B=A, C=B, A=C, C=A. It’s the same way our minds get triggered when we see a tree on the side of the road. It’s just a tree. But what if that tree reminds you of a tree you used to have in the backyard of your childhood home. Then the childhood home reminds you of all the difficult times you had in school being bullied. Being bullied may remind you of how unsupported you felt—and maybe even helpless.article continues after advertisement

Our minds have endless associations and will keep going as long as we let it. Our thoughts are wired to pull us into events that are not reality. And more problematic than that is what Dr. Russ Harris talks about in his book The Happiness Trap.

“All too often we react to our thoughts as if they are the absolute truth or as if we must give them all our attention.”

In Dr. Harris’ book, he talks about how the mind loves telling stories. The mind will tell stories all day long about what we should be doing with our life, or making us feeling guilty for what we’re not doing, or making up stories about what other people think of us, or what went on in the past. He describes it as a radio that never stops broadcasting. However, these thoughts and stories alone are not the problem. It’s our belief and attachment to these thoughts. Our mind tells us things all the time and we buy into it. We take them as absolute truths. As long as your mind is making up stories, why not make up something that serves you and is helpful? Why do we buy into all the negative thoughts of our internal dialogue when if a stranger said that to us, we would fight them? We would fight them for trying to bring us down. But instead, when it’s our own voice, we listen. We give that voice credence. We give up. Why?

So let’s go back to Viktor Frankl’s quote I started with where he says between stimulus and response lies our growth and our freedom to choose our response. Between stimulus and response lies our thoughts and feelings that move us in the direction of our behavior. This is the space in which our power lies. We can choose to react to situations in a knee-jerk fashion (e.g. anger, drugs, violence), or we can pause and reflect on those moments that trigger our thoughts. Responding, rather than reacting, means that we can realize we’ve been triggered. We can realize that our mind is starting to make up stories. We can realize that instead of going into our old habits, we can choose new ones that move us in the direction we truly value, which may be a health relationship (with ourselves and others). We can take a second to say, “let’s talk about this situation later” instead of lashing out. Arguably, lashing out will only exacerbate the situation, create more tension, and create more firepower for the person you are fighting with. And eventually, the argument becomes more about a power struggle than it does about the issue itself. 

Responding takes more thought and effort because it is not as driven by our moment-to-moments thoughts and feelings. Often times, we get so caught up in our feelings and emotions, we don’t take time to even realize that we’ve even been triggered. We go from 0 to 60, not realizing that our foot was on the gas pedal the entire time. When we respond, we realize that we are the ones who have the foot on the gas and instead of speeding straight to 60 miles per hour, we begin to control the weight of the foot on the pedal and choose the speed that would be ideal for the driving conditions we are in.article continues after advertisement

So how do we begin to become mindful? It starts with becoming aware of the process of thinking. In those triggering moments just simply recognize how your mind just went from 0 to 60 or how you suddenly started feeling a little “icky” or how you just got a little upset even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why. What happens is that our mind starts going wild and mindfulness teaches us to recognize that we’ve been activated. We realize our own internal dialogue. You may not hear exactly what it is saying, but you know it’s starting to talk and eventually that voice will get louder and louder. Once we recognize that, simply label what goes on as “thinking.” Don’t get so caught up in the specifics of the event and the thoughts. And most importantly, drop the judgment. We are all human beings and as human beings, we will create stories. It’s part of the human condition and that’s OK. Knowing that, it’s now your choice in how you want to respond.

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