Don't React, Respond! How These 3 Words Can Do Wonders For Your Mental Health

October 04, 2017 5 min read
Don't React, Respond! How These 3 Words Can Do Wonders For Your Mental Health

Dr. Bira emphasizes the importance of responding versus reacting to the world around you. Reactions occur automatically, and almost instantaneously, but if you develop an awareness of how you react, you can mold your reactions into ideal responses that help you be better. She also provides some tips on how to help your friends with mental health when they don't seem willing to listen.

This blog post covers part of my conversation with American clinical health psychologist, therapist and coach Dr. Lindsay Bira. This is the second part to our interview. Dr. Bira was a TEDx speaker in San Antonio and speaks often about health, mindfulness, the brain, and stress. She has been featured on public radio, Women's Health Magazine, and more media outlets for her work.  

Lindsay Bira Profile.png

Zach: This week I read Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The essence of it is that we can't choose our circumstances but we can choose how we respond to the circumstance. This principle is what enables some people to find joy and hope, in even the darkest of places such as a concentration camp, as he writes about. What do you think of this? Does this still apply today or have our thoughts evolved?

Dr. Bira:

It's definitely still relevant. That's actually a cognitive behavioral insight. For example, say I'm walking down the street and somebody gives me the stink eye (looks at me like I've wronged them). That's not a pleasant experience. We never want somebody to look at us in a negative way. But, the way that I'm going to feel depends on how I interpret and explain WHY they gave me the stink eye.

If I say “what a jerk,” then I'm going to feel angry. If I say “there must be something in his eye,” I may feel slightly concerned. If I say he wasn't wearing his glasses and was squinting because he couldn't see me, I’m going to feel neutral. If I think that maybe got bad news and he’s trying not to cry, I’m going to feel empathy.

So right there, how I feel is going to depend on my interpretation. And those interpretations happen very automatically. But, when we practice awareness of what our automatic interpretations are, then we can better control our emotions and change our world.

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The key is, we don’t always know why events happen, but we create our own emotions when we assume an explanation. If I'm stuck in traffic and I realize I'm getting angry, I can say "wait a minute, what am I saying to myself?" It’s probably something like “This shouldn’t be happening; drivers suck; I can’t deal with this right now.”If I switched that way of thinking over to say “driving is a piece of what I do. This is exactly how driving is supposed to be sometimes. There's nowhere else I need to be besides here, given that driving is a part of what I have to do,” I’m going to feel very different.

In additional to a thought and an emotional response to an event, we can also have an automatic behavioral response. If somebody gives me a bad look, or cuts me off in traffic, and I behave aggressively toward them, then I'm only reinforcing the message to my brain that the environment is hostile and I need to react by fighting against it, which is only furthering the problem. Instead, if I decide to do nothing or even doing something positive in return, then that’s another way I can shift the cycle. I can change my thoughts (immediate interpretations) and emotions or simply notice what those are and then choose a different behavior.  It applies directly to many areas of life from difficulty with stress to more severe mental health symptoms and that's what we work with in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Zach: If you're not a therapist, if you're me for example, how do you encourage your friends or loved ones to engage in this behavior? For instance, I was recently dealing with a friend of mine who had something bad happen to them. They're really stressed and anxious about it (for general tips for dealing with stress and anxiety, click here and here), but I’m trying to advise them that they should choose how they respond so it doesn't have to affect them in the way that it is affecting them. They're not really taking kindly to me saying that. Do you have any advice with regard to that?

Dr. Bira:

It's such an individual process. Whenever I talk about these concepts, that's a very common question I get: “well how do I help my friends/family see this and that?” There's actually no way that we can change anybody else unless they're willing to go recognize it for themselves, and they want to make that shift. That takes awareness, readiness, and some real tough vulnerability.  If we try to push that on other people it's only going to make them feel misunderstood and invalidated in the struggle that they're having.

dealing with stress and anxiety and mental health

I think the best way to help other people change is to show that change within yourself. Sometimes, someone will say something like “I really want my mom to go to therapy and she won’t.” I suggest to start going to therapy yourself to do some real, honest work on yourself so that you can talk about how that experience has helped you.

Model the change you want to see in others, even if you feel like you already have it…push your own boundaries in some way.

That changes it from pushing the other person, to modelling appropriate healthy behavior, which we know from research is the best way for other people to learn. And, if we want to have influence on someone, they have to trust us, to feel safe opening up with things that they have a lot of emotion about (logical or not). Simply meeting somebody exactly where they're at in their struggle is the best way to align with them, to build trust, and then help them be open to change maybe later on down the road through suggestions or by modeling positive ways of being yourself.

It's challenging, because often with an outside perspective, you can see exactly what's going on and what the problem is, but it doesn't mean that the other person will understand, value your perspective or listen. They might get angry and push away if they feel misunderstood. So it’s very important to be thoughtful about how you approach such situations, and that often means going against your own grain in some way to get the thing you want, which is the crux of psychology.


Dr. Lindsay Bira and I also spoke about destigmatizing mental health, improving the global health scene, the three main approaches for dealing with PTSD, whether mental health care is a luxury or necessity. Follow our blog to hear more from Dr. Lindsay Bira on these and other topics.

To consult with Dr. Lindsay Bira in-person or remotely from her San Antonio office, contact her directly through her profile.

If you're thinking "I need a therapist near me" but Dr. Bira doesn't specialize in what you need, try the RingMD therapist directory with a click of the button below. We will help you find the right therapist for YOU!