Tales from a Reactive Human
When I was a dog trainer, we talked about this thing called "reactivity" a lot. The gist of it is...well, a reaction. Typically, a loud one (barking), an undesirable one (lunging on leash), and/or an embarrassing one (getting pulled down the street by the barking and lunging dog). Reactivity is usually thought of as a negative or unwanted behavior. One we want to get rid of. One we want to overcome. It's no good for the dog, it generally sucks for us and turns out, that we humans can be reactive, too. We don't bark and lunge (I hope!), but we are snappy and short, irritable and yell-y. Just like it takes training to help dogs overcome reactivity, it can take training for us to do it for ourselves. We didn't get this way overnight, we ain't gonna change it overnight. Okay, let me own this...I ain't gonna change it overnight. But I've been working on it and here's what I have learned. Note I said what I have learned, not what I am always able to put into practice. This may take a while. In addition to 51 years worth of behavior patterns, we're in the middle of a pandemic, I left an entire industry (and most of the people I called friends in it) last year, politics in the US have been unstable and scary and we're mid-renovation on a new house. That last one is very first world problems, I know, but it's a special kind of hell.
Anyway, let me dig in to reactive behavior or what I call reactivity. But first, here's a bit about how I am working on it with my dog:
Now, onto reactive humans. First, reactivity is just a response. But when we talk about being reactive, we typically mean that something(s) has triggered that response and caused us to act in ways that are not, shall we say...very becoming. Someone cuts us off in traffic, we shout obscenities. This can spill over. If we are prone to holding on to things (ahem...🤚🏼), we might later be a little bit snappy or sullen if the person also called us a name or otherwise further agitated us.
If you've suffered through a pandemic like me..oh wait. If life has not been ideal and you find yourself sad, depressed, anxious, or even just hungry, you may behave in ways that are reactive, here's some tips to help you find your way through to the other side, where maybe there's some joy. Or coffee. Same thing, actually. 😉
Have any tried and true tactics? I'd love to hear them! For me, headaches are a big trigger. How I feel can definitely affect how I behave. Knowing my triggers has saved me from a thousand arguments with my husband. It's saved me from saying something I'll regret to a friend. It's saved me from lashing out at store clerks, sales people, etc. Headaches are just one trigger. I have many. Traffic is another one. I'll take the long way if it means not sitting still. Finding solutions to triggers is absolutely key if you want to change. And I do.
Once we acknowledge that we want (and probably need) to change, we can start to take proactive steps. One of those for me was to set up my sleep sitch so that morning headaches are less likely. Is it a pain to fill that humidifier every day? A little bit. Is it a joy to wake up headache-free? You betcha. Does my mood being better cause me to act like a better human? Hell to the yes.
I meditate and do 30 minutes minimum of yoga at least 5 mornings a week. I put on my bra (that counts as getting dressed, no? 🤷🏼♀️) before I even get out of bed so that I am ready. But first, coffee. If I am in a bad mood, I literally say out loud, "But, there's coffee downstairs....😀"
This is one of those bells you can't unring. Once you know your behavior isn't working, you can't just pretend like everything is cool. But it truly does take practice. Here's an example of me not practicing what I preach: the UPS man just brought us some boxes and knocked on the door which made the dog bark. I bought an outdoor storage container specifically for him because unlike those UPS Dogs on social media, my dog does not love the UPS man and it's a whole mood when she hears the truck. So I was being proactive...and guess who doesn't use the box? The UPS man. So I saw the truck, got the dog upstairs and scattered some treats to keep her distracted and happy. And then he knocked on the door, Making me very unhappy. And curse-y. But in my house. To myself, so maybe I can give myself a break? I didn't yell at him or the dog, so....🙏🏼? I don't know. Not sure where I stand on this one yet. All I know is everrrrrryone else uses the delivery box. 😐
You know what works for just about everything? Breathing. There are lots of breathing techniques out there designed to calm, focus, center or ground us and when we get into the practice of using them, they really do help. I like box breathing quite a bit. And having access to animations of breathing techniques is a great way to re-focus energy. There's some great GIFs and YouTube videos out there!
Learn to say I'm sorry. But don't make that your default. Apologies only matter when they are accompanied by behavior change. And recognize that saying you're sorry or were wrong takes strength! It means you want to be better and that's not always an easy feat. Especially with things that trigger you! So, if your spouse gets another Amazon box and you testily ask "what did you order now?" and he or she answers by showing you a box of the essential oils you like, eat your humble pie, say sorry and vow to stop being such a butthead. (Filed under: Note To Self.)
This is my favorite one. The best way I know to avoid being reactive is by taking care of myself. And that concept has gotten so broad and spacious and feels so good to me. It's not about spas or vacations, though it can be and in safer, less COVID-y times, probably would be. For me, self-care is about the little things I do just for me that help pad and protect me from the big ol' world. We have an elderly cat who we thought were going to lose early on in the pandemic. But with excellent veterinary care, she is thriving. And suddenly, she likes to be held. And rocked. And sung to. And it is the best thing in the world. Holding her and feeling her purr next to my heart is medicine. I'm also into doing my nails and shaping my brows, and those things help ground me in my physical being. I listen to meditation music or dance to the Hamilton soundtrack. I turn the notifications off on my phone at 8pm. I left Facebook! All of these things are acts of self-care and absolutely help me be less reactive and feel more positive.
Perhaps most important of all is to ask for help. There is no shame in needing help. We've all lived through what's been an incredibly trying period and it's not over yet. I just started on anti-anxiety medication because another medication was no longer working for me. When I finally made the decision to go this route, I know it was welcome news to my husband and my doctor was so kind and helpful. Listened to my concerns and gave me time to choose what I thought would be best for me. Earlier in the year, I worked with a coach who got me through some tough career and personal stuff. She helped me center myself with meditation and journaling, she reminded me of my gifts, my talents and my joys. But I needed more. Just admitting it was a relief.
Finally, I know it's not everything, but knowing you are not alone is a big thing. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of thinking everyone else has it more together than you. It's not true. And comparing ourselves to other people is another thing that never works out well!
Just like my dogs', my reactivity is a work in progress. Some days, I catch myself in time, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I get to talk about the floofy tail and gorgeous coat before my dog starts barking in my ear in the car and sometimes, I have to play catch-up. It's all okay. I take a deep breath and shake it off. Most of the time. No one's perfect. Except for maybe this cat.