Between Stimulus and Response Is the Answer to Anxiety.

Tuning Out Noise

Daily life can often be a regular cacophony: work, kids, traffic, social events, sports, news, family, bills, chores… I’m sure you can add to the list! (Even the holidays can be a source of unwanted noise rather than the rest and relaxation we crave and need.) All of this takes up space in our minds and hearts with the thoughts and emotions that accompany them, sometimes leaving little space for ourselves. Our heads become tin cans with all this racket ricocheting around inside like BB’s, leaving our brains feelings like mush.

Have you ever felt, at the end of the day, like your mind is almost the enemy? You can’t get it to shut up, and the non-stop thoughts continue to flow in and out like travelers at an airport. You can’t blame your brain, though, for doing what it is made to do – think! It’s like my little son’s toy car, the kind that you can rev up and then let it go and it will keep going. We get our brains going throughout the day with all that we have to do and worry about, and then we expect it to just turn off when we want to rest and relax. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. With all that modern life demands it can feel that the mind is a runaway train. This can be a huge challenge in the moments that we try to stop and pray as well, and it can often turn into a dialogue with our to-do list and anxieties instead of a conversation with God. How do we get FREE of this, and use our minds to be for us and not against us?!

Mindfulness And Freedom

The noise in our daily lives certainly counts as a stimulus, and our response is often much less than truly free and chosen. Mindfulness is a way to help manage the noise and reclaim some much-needed space in our minds and hearts. Mindfulness is pretty much just as it sounds: being mindful or aware of ourselves and what is happening in the present moment. 

A quote that is usually attributed to Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning, refers “freedom” as the space between stimulus and response. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies your freedom and power to choose your response. In those responses lie your growth and your happiness.” If there is no space between stimulus and response, then the action was likely not truly free and voluntary, such as when I pull my hand back automatically from a hot object. Obviously, that is an example of when an automatic reaction is good. How about if a guy were to call me a name, and I immediately punch him in the mouth? Not so good. There are many situations every day that we can form automatic reactions toward. Some of these are likely good for primal survival but others, however, might not be so good, and can rob us of our peace. These are the areas where we can work to augment our freedom by growing the space between the stimulus and the response.

Don’t Forget To Breath!

A simple exercise can be to breathe deeply and simply focus on the sensation of the air that is coming in and out of our lungs. This can slow our thinking when it gets out of control and help us feel more grounded. When we become distracted and our minds are preoccupied with the future, it can be very helpful to bring ourselves back to the present, which is where God’s grace is! The future is not yet, and God gives us the graces we need when we need them, and not a moment before. When we think too much about the future we cannot appreciate the present, which is all we really have. The future, when it arrives, will become our present, and if we do not learn to orient ourselves better to the present moment, the future will never arrive. We will end up spending most of our time and energy directed toward something that does not exist and perpetually miss out on what God is trying to give us right now.

I think this is the reason that television and movies are so attractive, because they occupy our attention here and now and entertain – literally to hold or maintain – our minds in the present. We experience relief from our thoughts and worries about the future and envelop us in something pleasant in the moment. But how often do you think that you need to stop watching as much as you do? Whether you do or not, mindfulness can be helpful for all of us to learn or heighten our ability to entertain ourselves (again, meaning holding our minds in the present) and thus experience the ability to relax and rejoice in other things as well.

You Got This

So to recap: mindfulness also helps us to increase that space between stimulus and response. The more we learn that we have the ability to become aware of the stressors that assault us daily and calm our minds and hearts, the more we can respond to the situations in our lives instead of reacting. This ability leads to greater freedom, and greater freedom leads to a more fulfilling sense of purpose and peace.

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