Ep. 50 – Train Your Brain to Respond v. React

I was recently on a trip where I was gone for 8 days. Anyone who has traveled in the last year might agree that travel hasn’t gotten any more glamorous since Covid. 

Long lines, delays, frustrations are all par for the course. As much as you can try to plan and prepare in advance, there are likely going to be situations and scenarios where you have to be flexible or patient – or both. 

I had a couple of opportunities to be flexible and patient on this last trip. The first time was when one of my flights ended up being delayed more than 8 hours (it was only a 2-hour flight to begin with). Fortunately, I saw the first delay notice before I left my hotel so I was able to make some quick adjustments and enjoy the extra hours on my own terms. I went and had a fantastic breakfast and took two long walks around the city. I made some phone calls. 

That was a great example of how I responded to a change in plans. Fast forward a few days and I’m in another airport facing another delay and now I’m almost in tears talking to the hotel where I had just left my laptop behind. Similar challenges, different reactions. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that your reaction is an instinct, and your response is a choice. Let’s dig into that further. 

A reaction is an immediate assessment of what just happened (most of the time what happened is out of our control) and a response is a considered counter to what we will do about what just happened (so what is within our control). 

Reactions are driven by the part of our brain responsible for our survival instinct – often known as our fight-or-flight impulses. The cerebral cortex center of our brain however offers more nuanced executive functioning. Here, we can draw on memory, problem-solving, and analysis as we consider our response

One component of the difference between them is the time between them. 

Reaction time is rooted in neuroscience. Your brain is continuously taking in information from all your senses. The time between the intake of information and any related action occurs within a fraction of a second. To be more specific, the average reaction time takes a person between 150 and 300 milliseconds depending on the circumstances. 

Reaction time measures the speed of our reaction. One interesting note is that research indicates we tend to respond fastest to auditory stimulus (so a disruptive sound, somebody yelling). Then we respond next fastest to touch, and then something visual. Even though it all happens super fast, there are many layers to how and why we do what we do. 

A reaction and a response both serve us in different situations. The prompt of this episode is to consider when you see a pattern for how you deal with the disruptions that invariably come along. If you find yourself conducting frequent “after-action reports” in your mind about what you wish you had said or done differently, there’s an opportunity to assess what tools are within reach in those upside-down moments. 

One tool is time itself. When something surprises you, how comfortable are you to take a minute? Even saying “I’m processing this” gives your brain the green light to do just that. If others are clamoring for your immediate input, that same statement is a way to push a pause button – even just for a few moments. 

A subtle change of scenery may also help you with that processing. Since the brain goes on high alert during disruptions, it is often more aware of sights and sounds-things feel louder. As you attempt to process, see if there is a space or place where you can lower the volume on your senses so your cerebral cortex can catch up and join the conversation. 

Another tool to try is the who-else and what-else approach? Who else is affected right now by this disruption and/or who can help offer quick support and what else can be done right now? By our very nature, instincts are individual actions. So that pause can offer critical extra information to see how others are adapting or who might be able to help you think through response scenarios. 

For me, it was the person back at the hotel who could get my computer, pack it up and get it sent out to me. That leads to the what-else. That engages your brain into the mental multiple choice thinking where you can assess if there are other options available and sometimes those other options might reveal other “who’s” to help. 

So as the distractions and disruptions pop up (as they will), make sure your cognitive toolbox is stocked with personal tools to choose how, when, and how well you react and respond. 

We don’t always get to choose what happens in this world, but sometimes we get to choose how it impacts our piece of the world. And as we make those choices whenever we are able, we can also choose to take care to take good care.  

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.