How to Stop Reacting Immediately and Start Acting Consciously

. 9 min read

It doesn’t matter if we spend years studying and philosophizing about what it means to live well if we don’t put any of our theories and ideologies into practice. Until we walk the walk, our lives remain unchanged.

This may sound obvious, but the truth is so many of us, especially these days when social media is brimming with self-help content, get caught in this inbetween place—this place where we have a library of information stored up in our minds that is never really put to use.

…which explains why tons of TV shows that have been coming out lately are centered around mocking the wellness and self-help industries. They’re pointing a giant finger at the elephant in the room by calling out how hypocritical people can appear to be. I’m thinking right now of Netflix’s Wellmania, Unstable, and The Unusual Suspects, but shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley in the past, as well as tons of others, have been making a point of “exposing” how those that devote themselves to personal development aren’t always so full of the good energy they preach about.

And, look, there are tons of angles to this conversation. First, no one, not even the most devoted lightworker, is all sunshine and rainbows 24/7. (Except perhaps a handful of monks. But you know what I mean, the large majority of us are not walking around with halos on our heads all the time, even when we are doing the work.) And that’s because we are human. We are imperfect. And my belief is that the reason we are here on this earth is precisely because of this, because our souls have lessons to learn. So, given this, we shouldn’t shame people we know that resemble the characters in these TV shows who devote themselves to personal development whilst simultaneously being human… This is entirely natural.

On the other hand, what some shows get at is the fact that there are people espousing one way of being, and then not even trying to walk the walk. On TV, they go to extremes for the sake of drama. I’m thinking of all the shows—Nashville, Beverly Hills 90210, etc.—that have a storyline about a character that gets caught up in a cult that is led by a so-called "guru," who is truly a predator. This is clearly harmful.

But while, of course, this happens in our real world, what I believe we see far more often is the way less extreme version of this: as mentioned at the top, those that read all about personal development but then just… don’t put it into practice, for whichever reason.

And if we could be super honest, I think it’s safe to say that most of us here have been this person, and many of us still are.

Does that make us terrible people? Not at all.

I don’t believe that the majority of those that don’t walk the walk are intentionally setting out to be tricksters, or even setting out to be praised for being holier than thou when they’re, well, not.

What I believe is that most people are doing the best that they can, and if someone is drawn enough to personal development to have spent time consuming content about it, that’s because this person is being called to the path to eventually carry out what they are studying, to eventually walk the walk.

And the reason they’re not yet doing so? Well, this varies person to person. But each individual has a legitimate reason.

Maybe you relate to this. Maybe you feel so called to growth and expansion, maybe even you feel called to explore your spirituality, but (!) you can’t bring yourself to implement what you’re learning to create real change in your life.

I know I’ve been there. Multiple times, actually. Every single time I’ve leveled up my life I’ve gone through a period of mass absorption, where I’ve delved into studying and, very often, not realized for quite some time that…hey, maybe I’ve gotten a little too comfortable in this place, and maybe it’s time to do the scary thing and put this knowledge to work.

At last, here we are, ready to dig into what to do about this realization, ready to learn how to actually make this change we’re being called to make.

If you’re feeling a general discomfort, I suggest you read this post: Why Change is So Hard, How to Embrace Uncertainty, and How to Create the Life You're After.

This post here is, specifically, about breaking out of habitual responses in the moment. If you’ve wondered, “How do I stop reacting immediately?” This one's for you. My hope is that, after reading this, you will have the tools to choose how you’d like to respond to situations you find yourself in. Because, at the end of the day, life is just a collection of moments. So if we can learn to show up in each moment in the way that feels most aligned with our values, our goals, our dreams, our souls, our purpose, our truth, we are living our best lives.

This doesn’t mean we need to get obsessive or perfectionistic about this process. This just means we commit to showing up each day to the best of our ability.

So, what typically happens when we dive into personal development work at first is we get excited and impassioned and maybe a little idealistic. We think, since we’ve read the books and listened to the podcasts and been to the conferences, we’re nearly enlightened. We get it.

And so, as we move through breezier seasons of our lives, we feel great.

But then something happens and we’re met with a challenge and, without thinking, we react. And it’s only afterward that we realize, oh wow, that wasn’t exactly aligned with who I’ve thought I’ve been becoming, or who I’ve been saying I want to become.

So we tell ourselves that next time things will be different. Next time we’ll, for instance, stand up for ourselves when our colleague tries to walk all over us, or next time our mother makes a snide comment about us, we’ll let it go and try to send her love instead.

But then the next time comes around and, bam, we react again. We lay down like a doormat and allow our colleague to push us around. We shoot back at our mothers and say something we regret.

In my own life, I’ve found myself getting triggered in many of my own relationships and reacting, as a result, in ways I haven’t been so fond of.

A long time ago, to share for a moment, I dated someone who I eventually found out had been cheating on me for months. And while I wish the cheating was the extent of it, it wasn’t. He lied about so much, and even constructed wild scenarios to make me think I’d somehow been unkind to him—like texting me from a friend’s phone in very explicit ways and then later taking my phone to yell at me for receiving such texts. It was absolute madness that left me shaken for years.

…as you may imagine, while I’m in a much better place now, I still get triggered in my current relationship. And that looks like me, at times, searching for things to be suspicious of, searching for ways in which I may be being used or manipulated. It’s truly a painful MO that I am actively working on, because you can only imagine how, forget about me and what that does to my nervous system, but imagine how that makes my current partner feel. Not good. It’s deeply unfair.

No matter what pattern you’re trying to break, there are going to be a few levels of work.

There is the deep work that involves leaning into your pain, vs. trying to shove it away. As Dr. Anna Lembke writes in her book Dopamine Nation, “Our misery stems from trying to avoid being miserable,” which explains why one in four Americans take a psychiatric medication daily and one in ten uses antidepressants, with global use also rising—we have such difficulty tolerating discomfort and choose as a result to numb out, and/or to distract ourselves.

But those behaviours are just bandages. To truly heal, we need to resist tuning out our pain and actually gather the courage to explore what we’ve been through. When we do, we find that we are capable of facing our pain head on, and that it’s not our challenges that have been holding us back, as leading psychiatrist Phil Stutz writes in The Tools, it’s really the avoidance of them.

Part of being able to move through this work is showing yourself compassion for how that’s affected how you show up today, and then deciding how you’d like to show up differently—and making a plan to actually go about doing so.

...which brings me to what I want us to focus on here today:

Catching ourselves prior to reacting, and choosing a different reaction instead.

Ultimately, what this boils down to is staying super present, which is why meditators tend to find this easier, as they practice presence regularly. But even if you’re not a meditator, you can absolutely do this.

Staying present is key because that means we’re grounded in the moment, in our bodies, and we are making decisions from this conscious place. When we react immediately, off the cuff, without thinking, we are not grounded. Rather, it’s as if we have teleported to the past, to the moment that first caused our pain. This is why we can have, what looks like to others, an overblown response to a situation. Because we are not responding to the situation at hand, we are responding to a painful situation from our past.

The difficulty is staying grounded in the present when you get triggered.

And here’s the thing, this is a practice. You may not be able to stay grounded at first. You just need to keep trying, bit by bit. In time, it will get easier. But you must stay committed to this practice.

So what does this practice of staying grounded actually look like?

The good news is that there are a few grounding practices that we can use. So you can try them out and see which works best for you, and also which is available to you given your unique circumstance(s).

Grounding Techniques to Keep you Grounded in the Moment

  • Pinching the skin between your thumb and index finger.
  • Tapping your fingers together.
  • Breathing slowly while counting.
  • Tuning into different sounds around you.
  • Walking barefoot and noticing how the ground feels.
  • Or, just walking and tuning into the rhythm of your footsteps.
  • Or, moving your body in any which way, paying attention to how your body feels.
  • Wrapping yourself in a blanket and noticing how it feels around your body.
  • Holding an ice cube.
  • Splashing cool water on your face.
  • Picking up or touching items near you—some people love things like marbles, stress balls, or silly putty for this, but anything works!
  • Scanning your body, noticing how each body part feels.
  • Visualizing leaving painful feelings behind.
  • Describing to yourself what’s around you.
  • Picturing the face/voice of someone you love.
  • Visualizing a favourite place.
  • Sitting with a pet.
  • Visualizing yourself in protective clothing, or with a protective bubble of beautiful light around you.
  • Listening to a voicenote of yourself or another reminding you that you’re safe, or sharing another affirmation that anchors you. Or, just affirming this in your mind!

As mentioned, this is a practice that you will fine tune over time. You can even “rehearse” this, if you will, by imagining yourself in a stressful scenario and using one of the above techniques. Getting used to an exercise before you need to use it tends to make it more effortless when you do need to use it to cope in a stressful moment.

Do your best to be mindful and check in with yourself after using a grounding exercise. If one doesn’t work too well for you, make note of that and commit to trying another. Remember: the goal is not perfection. The goal is to discover what works for your body and mind so that you can remain in the present moment and respond to life in the way that best aligns with your hopes, your dreams, your goals, your values, your purpose, your soul, your truth.

Spiritually-Minded Grounding Techniques

If none of these truly speak to you, perhaps you’d benefit from a more spiritual approach, such as calling in the energy of...

  • love
  • gratitude
  • your higher self
  • your guides

...when you’re feeling triggered.

That may look like getting in the habit of saying a silent prayer, or touching a finger to a precious piece of jewelry that reminds you to connect to such energy.

Another tool that may be helpful, not while in the state of heightened emotion but afterward, is reframing your view on adversity at large. This also comes from Stutz’s book The Tools.

He advises doing this by visualizing the emotion surrounding the difficult situation, i.e. fear or frustration, and asking this visualized emotion to envelop you. As it does, he writes, “accept it eagerly with the belief it will bring something good. Focus your mind on that good as you move yourself through and out, thanking the pain as you go for what’s on the other side.”

In Summary

To stop reacting immediately and to start responding to life in a more deliberate, conscious manner that aligns with your values, dreams, and true self, it's important you understand your triggers, which you can begin to do by leaning into what they bring up for you, and exploring that with compassion and acceptance.

From there, it's about deciding how you would like to show up. And then making a conscious effort to show up as said person.

To do that, you must continuet to do the deep work as you, too, work on staying present in your life through grounding techniques—be those physical, emotional, or spiritual.

I truly hope this has served you. Remember to take this slowly. There is no rush. By showing up and putting in your best effort, you are already on your path. Be gentle with yourself.

Get 1:1 support with this:

Explore the depths of my coaching here.
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Resources to read more:

The Tools, by Dr. Phil Stutz
Dopamine Nation, by Dr. Anna Lembke
The Myth of Sanity, by Dr. Martha Stout