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How to Respond instead of React

I generally consider myself a pretty level headed and patient person. As a secondary school drama teacher for over 13 years, running yearly school productions of 60 plus kids, trying to coordinate a group of adolescent boys to “step, tap, step, tap” together, you learn how to breathe through challenges without losing your shit.

So how is it then, that one little almost 4 year old girl can drive me to the brink of insanity?!

I get that little kids can be challenging, even when they are your own, in fact perhaps more so when they’re your own because you don’t filter your reactions. As a toddler they don’t understand negotiations (except for the terms they lay out) and reasoning like “if you eat that now you won’t be hungry for dinner” simply falls on deaf ears. But I’ve noticed of late that it’s not a case of starting to lose my patience with my daughter after the 10th “muuummyyyyyyyy!” screamed into my ear, I’m snapping back at her after the 1st.

I seem to have lost my buffer and the mummy guilt is starting to creep in.

Now, ordinarily I’d be saying “give yourself a break, you’re under pressure, tired, run down, trying to raise a family, work and run a business, you’re just on edge.” But the bottom line is, my time with the kids is precious and I don’t like feeling reactive. I want to respond to what she wants, which is possibly her need for attention, rather than react to a perceived cause of stress or annoyance.

When I’m with my kids I want to be truly present and I don’t want her to get to the point where she expects that sort of reaction from me. The thing is, I know there is something I can do about it and it has to do with a little thing called neuroplasticity.

How to respond instead of react

Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experiences. For example, when you learn a new skill (such as learning the piano) you repeat an exercise enough times to form a synapse or new pathway in the brain, the growth of new connections that result in an overall change.

In much the same way that I have been allowing myself to fall into a routine of reacting to situations, therefore creating pathways so that it is now second nature, there are ways to undo this and create new pathways. So how do I go about changing these neural pathways and therefore changing my reaction. This is the beauty of meditation, and it has a two pronged effect. So firstly…

How does meditation affect our neural pathways?

It turns out the more we meditate, the less anxiety we have because we’re actually loosening the connections in particular neural pathways. The Me Centre of our brains (technically the medical prefrontal cortex) processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Normally, the neural pathways from the bodily sensations and fear centres of the brain to the Me Centre are really strong, so when something upsets you it triggers a strong reaction. However, when we meditate, we weaken this neural connection so that we don’t react as strongly to sensations.

Simultaneously, as we weaken this connection, we strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Centre (the part of our brain responsible for reasoning) So when we experience something that upsets us, we can more easily look at it rationally.

Here’s the interesting thing, if we use pain as an example ~ as a result of meditating, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a scenario about what it might mean.

This has huge implications when it comes to pain such as experienced in childbirth. You can now understand why so many people turn to calm-birthing classes, in preparation for labour, as they all use variations of meditation.

“Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn back into the abyss.”

~ neuroscientist Richie Davidson

In any case, it works just as much on an emotional level as it does on the physical level. Through meditation we can view our experiences from a much more rational position, not allowing our emotions to drive our reactions. Now, here comes the hard part…

How do I make meditation a habit?

If we come back to our earlier discussion on neuroplasticity and creating new pathways, we simply need to get into the habit of meditating until it becomes second nature.

Meditation, or the practice of focusing ones attention, is itself a skill – the more regularly you do it the more chance there is of creating new pathways in the brain and therefore changing the brains activity.

Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating. This is the beauty of our new neural pathways, the effects carries over into your everyday activity.

Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.

If you’re not convinced, give it a try. Commit to meditating even for just 2 minutes a day for two weeks, you need to give the brain time to create those new neural connections.

At the end of the two weeks, notice how you feel, how you react to situations and perhaps how in control you are of your emotions.

Feel free to join me on the journey ~ here’s a short mindfulness meditation to get you started.