Blog Post: Responding Vs Reacting - The Psychology Company
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Responding Vs Reacting

England Vs Croatia: Responding Vs Reacting

It’s Wednesday evening and I, alongside millions of others, have just watched the mens England football team play Croatia in the semi finals of the football world cup. I really wanted them to win not least so I could watch them play in the final for the first time in my lifetime. My husband and I were on the edge of our seats, bodies filled with adrenalin and cortisol-a mixture of excitement and anxiety! But it wasn’t to be and Croatia scoring their second goal towards the end of extra time sealed our fate. A wave of familiar disappointment washed over us but it was mild and fleeting and we were soon engaged in other things.
Sadly a very different situation will play out in many homes tonight. Incidents of domestic violence increase during the world cup and a study by Lancaster university in 2013 showed that in the previous four football world cups abuse increased by 26% when England played and 38% when they lost. Alcohol consumption is one factor in this shocking statistic however so is increased emotional arousal and deficits in tolerating and regulating emotion. Aside from rising incidents of domestic violence it got me wondering how many more people were not getting their need for safety and connection met tonight because of arguments, shouting, slamming doors and all the other behaviours people get drawn into to try and discharge their emotion. To be the one exposed to this is damaging but it can also be damaging to be the one engaging in this behaviour. This isn’t the version of ourselves most people want to be and when the anger and disappointment has subsided what is often left is shame-another tricky emotion that is difficult to face head on so often gets pushed away in unhelpful ways.
Emotions are a fundamental part of being human-they carry with them important messages that need to be heard. However emotions can also overtake our bodies and minds very easily especially trickier emotions like fear and anger. And it doesn’t always take something as obvious as losing a football match to trigger these emotions. Furthermore, our thinking minds can fan the flames of our emotions ‘England always loses’, ‘nothing ever works out the way I want’ and if we don’t recognise this is happening then before we know it the emotional part of our brain has taken over and our physiological arousal increases. This experience is aversive for most people but sadly many people have very limited skills in managing their emotions as they have never been taught how to do this. So people act out their emotions, discharge their anger through aggression and violence or simply try to suppress what they feel because they don’t know what else to do with them. Show me someone who can observe their feelings, identify their emotions and ground and balance themselves when emotional intensity is increasing and this is someone who has probably done a lot of work on themselves.
So what sort of work can we do to help us experience our emotions and express our emotions in ways that are helpful rather than harmful…
  1. Taking time to learn about emotions and our emotional needs can be a good starting place. I have just started reading Living Like You Mean It by Ronald Frederick which focuses on using the power and wisdom of your emotions to live a more full and enriched life.
  2. Understanding the benefits of all emotions (not just the good one’s) can also help people start to approach rather than avoid their tricky emotions and in this vein the link to the blog on how emotionally intelligent people use negative emotions to their advantage might be of interest to some;
  3. I would also invite people to adopt a regular mindfulness meditation practice. There are many potential benefits of regular meditation including reduced emotion reactivity. We learn over time to bring equanimity and calm to whatever is arising. It doesn’t mean we don’t get ruffled by stimulus that stirs up negative emotions (be it England losing or some other perhaps more serious trigger), we are after all only human but it can cultivate an ability to face whatever emotion is in front of us, to sit and be with it and not act it out. Research has found that mindfulness stress reduction practices actually decrease the the size of peoples amygdala (responsible for aggression, anxiety, fear and depression) although mindfulness research is still in it’s infancy and statements like this needed to be treated with some caution until results are replicated in larger and very robust research studies.
  4. Emotions also play out in the body and in the nervous system so learning to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system through practices like yoga and pranayama (breathing) can be hugely beneficial in calming and grounding the body. A simple breathing technique of doubling the count of the exhalation to inhalation can have an immediate stabilising effect. I have been practicing yoga and pranayama for many many years and can really feel how much it has changed my automatic stress response and this is one reason I decided to do my yoga teacher training several years ago. Cultivating states like calm and stability through practices such as mediation, yoga or breathing can slowly (we do need patience and perseverance here) move us from state to trait so we start to become a calmer more stable version of ourselves.
  5. Finally psychological therapy can be a safe place to explore your emotional world. It can provide a rich opportunity to reflect on how emotions were modelled in your family of origin, explore the emotional texture of your life and consider key emotional memories that your body might still be holding onto (on this note The Body keeps The Score by Bassel Van Der Kolk is a great read). Furthermore psychological therapy can help you understand how cognitive processes (such as attention, thoughts and beliefs) stimulate and perpetuate your emotions, learn how to reduce this but still listen to what your emotions might be telling you and develop skills and practices to help you regulate your emotions (such as the ones described above) so they don’t overwhelm you.
So back to the football….the game also got me thinking about how the English football team will deal with defeat. When things don’t turn out the way we hope they will it can fertile ground for the critical part of us to rise up inside and start to belittle or even attack us. So I thought I could discuss this more in my next blog post and focus on the difference between critiquing and criticising and how important this distinction is for our well being and growth.
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.