Reacting vs responding: Taking back control

Have you ever felt like you're on autopilot? You see something upsetting, and before you know it, you're snapping back. Or maybe a stressful situation arises, and you find yourself withdrawing entirely. This common experience highlights the crucial difference between reacting and responding – a cornerstone concept in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).


The trap of reactivity

Imagine our mind as a complex system constantly bombarded with internal and external stimuli. Reacting is our automatic, often unhelpful response to these stimuli. Driven by our immediate thoughts and emotions, it frequently bypasses conscious choice, leading to impulsive behaviours.

ACT sheds light on how this reactive cycle unfolds.

Fusion with Thoughts: We tend to believe our thoughts are undeniable truths, leading us to react based on distorted interpretations. ("This traffic jam is ruining my day!")

Psychological Inflexibility: We struggle to adapt our behaviour to the situation at hand. ("I can't handle this, so I'm just going to avoid it.")

The Power of Responding: Responding, in contrast, empowers us with conscious choice. It allows us to act deliberately, guided by our values and long-term goals. Here's what sets responding apart:

Defusion: We learn to step back from our thoughts, observing them objectively without getting swept away by their emotional pull. ("This traffic is frustrating, but it's a temporary inconvenience.")

Psychological flexibility: We cultivate the ability to choose behaviours that align with what truly matters to us. ("I can use this time productively by listening to a podcast or practicing mindfulness exercises.")

ACT: Equipping you for a fulfilling life

ACT equips us with a toolkit to break free from the cycle of reactivity and embrace mindful responding:

  • Acceptance. We cultivate the ability to acknowledge and embrace uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without judgment.
  • Mindfulness. We train our attention to be fully present in the current moment, without getting caught up in the constant stream of mental chatter.
  • Values clarification. We embark on a journey of self-discovery to identify what truly holds significance in our lives.
  • Committed action. We take concrete steps towards living a life aligned with our values, even amidst challenges.

Reacting vs. responding in action

Let's see how this translates to a real-life scenario.

Scenario: You receive a critical email from your boss.

Reacting: Feeling a surge of anger and defensiveness, you impulsively draft a reply filled with justifications. This reactive response might escalate the situation and damage your professional relationship.

Responding: You take a deep breath, acknowledging the initial emotional response.

Reminding yourself of your value of open and honest communication, you choose to schedule a calm meeting with your boss to discuss the feedback constructively.

Living a life of fulfilment

By consciously choosing to respond rather than react, we equip ourselves to navigate life's inevitable challenges more effectively. This approach fosters healthier relationships, empowers us to pursue our goals with greater clarity, and ultimately paves the way for a more fulfilling life. It's important to remember that this is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. The next time you feel yourself on the verge of reacting impulsively, take a step back, choose to respond mindfully, and witness the positive transformation it brings.

Looking for more?

If you're interested in further exploring these concepts, consider delving deeper into resources on ACT therapy. Consulting with a qualified therapist can provide personalized guidance and support in developing your own skills for a more mindful and fulfilling life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol BS8 & BS2
Written by Tom Holland-Pearse
Bristol BS8 & BS2

Tom Holland-Pearse: Qualified therapist (9+ yrs) in NHS & private practice. Empowers individuals to navigate life's challenges & build emotional well-being.

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