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.”
In just three short sentences, this quote shares powerful guidance as to how to shift from the tendency of automatic reaction, to the choice of an integrated and transformative response. The power lies in the pause, in the acknowledgment that there is space between stimulus and response, and only we can enhance the spaciousness of these intermediary moments for ourselves. The cultivation of this ability takes time and great attention. The repatterning of our interaction with relationships we have with the world and people around us is a process that occurs simultaneously in the domains of the mind, the brain, and behavior.
Reactionary tendencies are often rooted in an emotional response: Something someone has said or done elicits feelings of anger, fear, happiness, or emotion, which bring about a response with various components (physical, mental, behavioral). While it can be challenging to control our behaviors when experiencing intense emotion, cultivating the ability to alter our emotional responses themselves is a powerful way to not be controlled by our emotions, but rather to create space where we can choose how we will cope with a situation.
Fear and the Nervous System
Fear is an especially powerful emotion, the response of which can be deeply patterned into our brain circuitry, thoughts, and behaviors over time or from a single experience. The experience of fear is essential as it elicits a reaction to ensure survival under threat, however, when the threat has passed and the fear remains, or when the threat is not directly endangering one’s life, the fear response, improperly regulated, can be more harmful than helpful. In a fear response, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, putting someone in a state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’ The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to make rational decisions, goes offline as we are only focused on immediate survival needs. We lose our ability to respond in an integrated way, functioning from a place of reaction – defensive and narrowly fixated on self-preservation. Thus, the fear response also inhibits connection and the ability to see a situation from a different point of view.
Self-Regulation and Resilience
While it is not necessarily desirable for the fear response to be completely eliminated, it is helpful to ensure it is properly regulated such that we are better able to cope with fear inducing stimuli, to increase our resilience and enhance our ability to respond rather than react. There are emotional regulation techniques that can help rewire the brain, for example the use of thoughts to change one’s emotional experience. One such strategy is to actively re-interpret given events to be less negative. Over time, this process can be more habitual and support the control you have over your reactions, therein creating the space the quote refers to — between stimulus and response.
When we are able to better control our reactions, to expand the space to choose a response, we can remain in a space of connection, with ourselves and others. This has profound implications for our ability to navigate challenging conversations and situations, to increase our resilience in the face of adversity, and make choices that will help us grow, individually and collectively.
Hartley, C. A., & Phelps, E. A. (2010). Changing Fear: The Neurocircuitry of Emotion Regulation. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), 136–146. http://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2009.121*
*This article is one of 1000+ others in Peace ReWire‘s extensive interactive literature map database of scientific research that has been combined at the intersection of neuroscience, spirituality, and peacebuilding.