Master the Art of the Positive Response & Live Happier

We all know what it's like to feel out of control. Your boss is in a bad mood, your meeting is delayed and you're forced to stay late, only to get stuck in traffic and miss spin class. Needless to say, there's a lot in life we can't control, but there is one thing you can change: your response. 

Specifically, the way you respond to an uncontrollable situation makes all the difference. When you respond positively, you create the opportunity to handle unpleasant feelings in a healthy manner. Responding positively also allows you to engage with the situation in a way that doesn't derail your accomplishments thus far.

On the other hand, responding negatively amplifies hostile emotions. It can also take a toll on your health, especially if you tend to cope by turning to emotional eating or drinking alcohol. Other negative responses, like neglecting responsibilities and lashing out at others, can also harm your relationships and social well-being.

The positive response isn't just about making the best of a situation, though. "[It helps us] cultivate a more peaceful internal experience," says Sharon Brock, M.S., a corporate mindfulness instructor and mindfulness coach based in California. This intentional action allows us to soothe unpleasant emotions like anger, stress and sadness. Simultaneously, it reduces the chances of making unhealthy choices fueled by those same emotions.  

That's not to say that responding positively is a walk in the park; it takes hard work and practice to hone the habit. However, by re-framing the way you approach uncontrollable situations, you can find opportunities to master the positive response.

Reacting vs. Responding

At first glance, "reacting" and "responding" may seem identical. When it comes to the way we engage with situations, though, the actions are worlds apart.

According to Brock, "reacting" and "responding" involve different parts of the brain: the amygdala (which controls fear) and the pre-frontal cortex (which controls reasoning). When we feel threatened, the amygdala fires up and we react. In turn, we behave based on thoughts and emotions produced by this region.

The catch? The amygdala fires, whether you're being chased by a tiger or receiving a poor performance review. "It doesn't [distinguish] that one is a life-threatening situation and the other is not," explains Brock. "It's an evolutionary mechanism that is simply not rational—it's just there to keep you alive."

Therefore, when you react to a situation, you behave based on the "fight-or-flight" fear response of the amygdala. This can spiral into feelings of stress and anxiety, making it easy to turn to unhealthy coping strategies like emotional eating.

In contrast, responding involves the reasoning abilities of the pre-frontal cortex. When we respond, we use mindfulness to realize that the situation is not life-threatening after all. This realization, Brock explains, calms the amygdala and activates the pre-frontal cortex, allowing us to exercise self-control and tackle problems. Ultimately, responding positively lets us handle negative experiences in a constructive way as we act from a place of understanding and compassion for everyone involved—including ourselves.

Responding Positively to 4 Situations We Can't Control

It's no secret life is a highly subjective experience. Yet, we all know what it's like to deal with circumstances that are out of our hands. This is especially common in the workplace, where employees, teams and departments are part of a bigger picture. After all, with so many moving parts, the work environment is remarkably prone to uncontrollable situations.

Let's look at how you can engage with some of these scenarios in a healthy way. Over time, as you teach yourself to respond positively, you'll be able to take charge of your emotional and mental experiences.

1. Unexpected Situations

Unforeseen circumstances are a normal part of life, and the workplace is no exception. For example, if a meeting runs longer than planned, you may have to cancel a workout or lunch date with a friend.

Instead of harboring negative feelings toward the situation, ask yourself: Can I control this?

Asking yourself this question can help you pause and think critically, says Laura Petiford, P.M.H.N.P., L.M.F.T., a psychiatric nurse practitioner and therapist in Connecticut. "[It] serves as a reminder that our responses are one of the few things we do have control over," she says. Consequently, you can pump the brakes on knee-jerk reactions and operating on autopilot.

It also offers guidance for making the next move. "If the answer is 'yes', we can shift into problem-solving mode and take action," explains Brock. "If the answer is 'no', we can shift into accepting mode."

Brock adds, "When we fully accept whatever is present, [we can] release the 'grip' of trying to control everything. From this more peaceful state of mind, we are able to work with the situation—rather than against it—and increase our ability to respond positively."

2. Change 

From office relocations to new bosses, there's nothing like a major change to spark anxiety and stress. The practice of responding positively, however, can significantly impact how those unpleasant emotions rule your life.

When you're faced with the unknown, ask yourself why the change makes you so uncomfortable. Don't hesitate to dig deeply, even if that means writing a stream of consciousness letter to yourself or venting to a close friend outside the office. By understanding the reasons behind your discomfort, you may be able to relieve some of your anxiety.

Another approach is to recognize that change is an inevitable part of life. Remind yourself that life revolves around transition and transformation. While you're at it, acknowledge that what is familiar to you now was once unfamiliar.

"Being gentle with ourselves when major change is occurring is imperative," says Petiford. "So let yourself experience those [negative] feelings and remember that new experiences are possible through change."

3. Actions of Other People

When you're angry, hurt or annoyed by someone else's behavior, it can be difficult to stay positive. It's even more frustrating when it happens at work, where there's the added pressure of job demands and expectations. Maybe a co-worker tore apart your presentation behind your back, or perhaps you just dealt with a rude customer or client—either way, another person's undesirable behavior can easily ruin a good day.

To practice the positive response, remind yourself that you are not responsible for other people's actions or thoughts. Recognize that people act based on their own fears, issues and insecurities. Remember that what people do and say is a reflection of them—not you.

Check in with your inner dialogue, too. How are you speaking to yourself? Would you speak to your best friend in the same way? If there's a difference, consider why you're not talking to yourself in the same regard.

"We all have a tape running in our heads, and sometimes we aren't even cognizant of this ongoing chatter," says Petiford. "Strive to become aware of any critical thoughts, [and] cultivate dialogue you would use with your best friend."

4. Undesired Outcomes

Whether you're pitching ideas or selling products, your job revolves around specific outcomes. But when our efforts are fruitless or don't unfold according to plan, it's common to react with shame and disappointment.

In this scenario, Petiford recommends looking at the outcome as a source of rich information. For example, at work, this information can highlight what processes need to be changed. In more personal matters, uninvited outcomes can emphasize your needs and wants.

With this outlook, you can utilize the unfavorable outcome as a guide toward a new direction. Moreover, you'll allow yourself to respond with intention instead of retaliation.

Like mindful eating and exercise, responding positively is a lifelong practice. Your ability to respond to different scenarios in a healthy manner will be challenged almost every day. The best you can do is to approach each situation as a lesson in disguise. With time and practice, you'll be able to respond in a way that prevents uncontrollable circumstances from controlling your life.