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Responding Vs. Reacting

In the world of self-defence, these two terms are often times interchangeable and in some thesaurus’ are identified as a synonym for one another. However, after taking a deep-dive into the meaning of each, we will see that whether we chose to ‘respond’ or ‘react’ to a given situation, can make a significant difference to the final outcome, especially when stress is introduced.


The word ‘react’ is actually derived from the Latin word, ‘reagere’ which translates to, re- “back” + agrere – “to do, perform” and is the noun from ‘reactionem’, originally a word used in the sciences such as physics and chemistry. By this definition, to react would be an immediate action ‘back' to an introduced stimulus creating stress, real or perceived.


Similarly, if we were to look at the word ‘respond’ as it has been taken from Latin, it translates to “pay back, answer, or reply to”. So, in contrast, to respond ideally requires one to answer back to an individual, usually through a form of communication. Keep in mind, that communication is made up of 55% non-verbal (body language), 38% paralanguage and 7% verbal and it's not just the words that we say that provide a response.


To proceed, we should understand that this ‘reaction’ is often referred to as the “Amygdala Hijack”. The amygdala is an almond shaped structure consisting of 13 nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. When a person senses a threat, the amygdala may activate the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This reaction to danger is automatic and allows the individual to react immediately without the need to think. Although it is referred to as a ‘response’, the key takeaway is that it creates an immediate ‘reaction’ which releases stress hormones that prepare the body to fight the perceived threat or flee from danger.

The amygdala causes the adrenal glands, which are located above each kidney, to produce adrenaline and cortisol;


Adrenaline, also referred to as epinephrine, causes the blood vessels to contract, allowing the body to redirect blood to the major muscle groups including the heart and lungs. This release also causes the pupils to dilate, thereby enhancing one’s vison. Other side effects associated with the adrenal dump include sweating, heavy breathing and involuntary shaking as your body subsides.


Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. It also increases blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension and forces the digestive system to slam to a halt, often times resulting in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.


This primitive reaction has been key to our species’ survival over the past millennia when there was no time to deliberate before taking action because, to do so, would have surely resulted in their death. Although the amygdala hijack in short bursts, is paramount for our survival, extended stress could have detrimental effect on our physiology and would explain why our ancestors had shorter lifespans. (I will elaborate on this later).


As our species has evolved over the past 1,000,000 or so years, so has the development of our cerebral cortex and, more specifically, our prefrontal cortex. This evolved part of our brain is widely known as our “executive functioning” which is associated with memory, analysis, planning, problem-solving, critical thinking, as well as risk assessment and managing. These skills in turn guide our deliberate thinking and decision making which determine our emotional and behavioral responses to the situation that we are dealing with.

For those who apply to the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) and/or the Assess, Plan and Act model for the Use of Force continuum, the cerebral cortex is usually required for engagement to solicit a response to the circumstances that you may find yourself in. This by no means is negative as it provides opportunity to identify that there is a problem, select the appropriate response and if necessary, commit to a course of action. The majority of us, myself included, would agree that this ‘response’ is more desirable, professional and considered civilized by today’s standards.


Let’s put this into context to understand the differences between both; First Responders do as their tittle suggest and respond to a given situation. A police officer responding to a disturbance at a multi-residential unit has certain information available to them including, location, possible identity of individual within the unit, possible cause for the call and what ever may be available through previous recorded data. While responding, they may form a plan on how to approach the situation as well as how they may attempt to resolve the problem including the use of other resources. As the driver of the responding vehicle to the incident turns into the parking lot of the complex, they are met with a separate vehicle barreling out at a high rate of speed directly into their path of travel. The driver now has to ‘react’ to the imminent situation facing them at which time the ‘amygdala’ will initially hijack the cognitive thought process and flood the body with adrenaline and cortisol preparing to fight or flight. Hopefully, in this situation, the driver will have the skills to initially avoid the oncoming vehicle and apply the "executive functioning" part of the brain to decide what to do next.


A “wild-card” which may also be thrown into the ‘amygdala hijack’ to accompany the ‘fight and flight’ reaction is’ freeze’ An individual facing a situation without experience or training related to that incident may find themselves freezing instead of fighting or fleeing. This, in certain circumstances, could put the individual into greater jeopardy and should be considered when evaluating the process.


To ‘flip the script’, in certain circumstances, if we were to ‘react’ to a situation when we could ‘respond’ we may end up with a less desirable outcome. For example, if you were in a heated conversation with another and something was said to illicit an emotional response, to ‘react’ may be irrational and could potentially create a greater risk to those involved. Instead, take a beat, breathe and choose to ‘respond’ within the context of the circumstances that you find yourself in. You have most likely have heard the expression, ‘cooler heads prevail’ which means that “the dominant influence in a given situation is exerted by calm, thoughtful people” responding instead of reacting to the circumstances.


I just want to finish up by addressing my earlier comment about individuals who remain in a heightened state of arousal caused by the ‘amygdala hijack’. Those suffering from anxiety, PTSD or are in an occupation where they are constantly responding from one critical incident to another, will find that they may have difficulty sleeping, body pains, headaches, feeling of tension, unease and high blood pressure. These are the physical, mental and emotional symptoms of continuously being in this state of arousal and should consider medical assistance to help cope before the symptoms become unmanageable. There are numerous resources available to assist in identifying if you or someone you know may fit these criteria.


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