4 Ways to Stop REACTING!

One of the greatest strengths a leader can posses is his (or her) ability keep his emotions in check, to stop reacting. However, when we feel rejected, hurt, or fearful, we often react, get visibly angry, or becoming defensive. Those responses can hinder God’s work in our lives and hurt our leadership. So what can we do?

Word on the button

Scripture consistently speaks against allowing anger (or any other negative emotion) to control us.

  • “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,… (Eph. 4.26)
  • Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (Eph. 4.31)
  • But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Col. 3.8)
  • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (James 1.19-20)

But, how do we control these feelings that sometimes spring upon us without our even thinking about them? Often when we feel angry or fearful, we believe that suppressing those feelings will reduce their power. On the contrary, it does the opposite. Neuroscientists have discovered that when we try to suppress an emotion it negatively affects us in two ways.

  1. It diminishes our memory and the ability to see and remember details of an event.
  2. Most importantly, suppressing the emotion actually does the opposite. Rather than helping us control it, it actually diminishes the internal resources available for us to respond to the situation in a biblical way. Scientists are now discovering what the Bible said long ago: So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Gal. 5.16)

The next time one of these emotions begins to control your thinking and behavior, consider apply the steps behind the acronym CART, a simple way to control an unhealthy expression of an emotion.

  • C” stands for change the situation. If you can appropriately change or avoid your situation so that you can avoid what could cause the emotion, do so. This is the easiest way to ‘nip it in the bud’ before it becomes full blown. Recently I became very angry about what someone did. I was not able to remove myself from the situation because the act was done at a distance. So, the issue was in my head rather than in physical close proximity. I had to move to the next step.
  • A” stands for attend to a distraction. If some event prompts one of these emotions, distract yourself. Look for something else to think about or focus on. In the above situation my anger was rising to a boiling point. I then tried to distract myself by listening to an mp3 talk on neuroleadership which somewhat moderated the emotion. However, I kept tuning out the talk and tuning into my internal self-talk that kept the emotion active. I then applied the next step.
  • R” stands for reappraise the situation. After I realized that my mp3 distraction could not consistently lessen my emotion, I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, and for a few moments thought about what I was thinking about. This is called mindfulness. I then intentionally began to look at the situation differently. I reminded myself that my love for this person should trump my anger toward her. I told myself that my anger would not change her, much less facilitate a reasonable conversation with her about her actions. As I began to mentally prioritize my relationship with her over her action, the emotion’s intensity began to complete this process of regulating this emotion.
  • T” stands for temper my visible response. At first I tried to suppress my emotion, which only increased it (as I mentioned above). However, after I admitted my anger and reappraised the situation (R), the Lord helped me avoid a potentially unhealthy and damaging reaction toward this person.

So, the next time an emotion begins to get the best of you, toss it into a CART.

What has worked for you to control your emotions in a healthy way?


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When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brains

The brain fascinates me and what happens in it profoundly impacts life and leadership. I even wrote a book about it, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry and earned an executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership. In this post I briefly explain how God organized our brain and how leaders and pastors sometimes lead from their lizard brains.

Closeup view of a wild iguana in a sunnay day

Imagine a tootsie roll pop with two centers. Pretend the inner center is a sweet tart surrounded by the gooey tootsie roll that in turn is surrounded by the hard outer candy. Our brains include three parts, like our imaginary tootsie roll pop.

The inner core, called the reptilian brain regulates such functions as circulation and respiration. It’s on automatic pilot. Let’s say you’re sensitive to criticism about your preaching and in a conversation one of your leaders makes this comment. “I sure wish you’d go deeper with your Bible teaching. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking about leaving because they aren’t getting fed.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a pastor who hasn’t heard a comment like that. If you’ve allowed chronic anxiety to build up inside, you might immediately react without thinking by sarcastically blurting, “I’m doing my best and if they want to leave, I’d be happy for them and me.” Such a comment threatens you and you adapt to this threat from the automatic process of the reptilian part of your brain.

The second part of our brains (the gooey tootsie roll part), the mammalian brain, regulates other functions such as bonding, playing, nurturing and expressions like shock, sorrow, and rejoicing. It also plays a role between pleasure and pain, flight and fight, and tension and relaxation. It serves as the seat of emotion. However, instead of maintaining balance between our reptilian brain and the third layer (the seat of rational thought), sometimes this part of the brain goes haywire. A pastor who enjoys preaching and has seen fruit from it, after enough critical comments, might face a depressive funk that his ministry is fruitless and that he should quit.

Both the reptilian and the mammalian parts of our brain compose about 15%, operate on automatic pilot, and have many connecting brain cells called neurons. However, our cerebral cortex, the outer brain, encompasses 85% of our brain. At this level God has given us the ability to think, process, gain insight, and choose. It is the seat of intentionality whereas the other two parts are the seats of instinct.

In summary, these three brain parts compose our Brain.

  • Lizard brain (reptilian): on automatic pilot that acts without thinking. Lizards eat their young. and some churches eat their pastors.
  • ‘Puppy’ brain (mammilian): the seat of emotions, also somewhat on automatic pilot.
  • Main brain (neocortex): the place where we think, analyze, choose, create, symbolize, and observe.

God gave us our entire brain, including the two lower brain levels. Those parts aren’t inferior, but limited. The neocortex can’t ignore them or else life would be rather dull. However, the neocortex allows us to “reflect on what is happening (insight) and plan for what might happen (foresight).”[1]

When anxiety overwhelms us (we lead from our lizard brains), we often react and these processes take over.

  • Impulse overwhelms intention.
  • Instinct sweeps aside imagination.
  • Reflexive behavior closes off reflective thought.
  • Defensive postures block out defined positions.
  • Emotional reactivity limits clearly determined direction.[2]

Here’s a personal example when I lead from my lizard brain.

Several years ago in an elder’s meeting at a former church one of the elders made a statement that implied I lacked a certain competency in my role, indicated by something he said I did. I didn’t even remember the specific issue, but I clearly remember my reaction. When he made that statement, I impulsively blurted, “I do not do that (whatever it was)!” He retorted, “You do it all the time.” I immediately jumped out of my chair, stomped over to the sink area behind me, and in anger said, “I never can please you. Everything I do is just not enough for you, is it?”

For the next ten minutes we went back and forth with great emotion and it took the finesse of another elder to cool us down.

What happened? I had experienced chronic anxiety toward this elder for some time. And, our elder meetings had not gone that well. When I felt attacked, my lizard brain often took over. My emotional reactivity came out as impulsive defensiveness. It happened without me even thinking.

In retrospect, I should have paused and allowed the thinking side of my brain to rule instead of my emotional side. My emotions acted faster than my thinking and I didn’t handle my feelings responsibly. I lost objectivity and civility. My unhealthy drivenness to please this leader caused an unnecessary conflict. In reality, his comment probably carried at least a grain of truth in it. Had I been more thoughtful, self-aware, and less anxiety filled that I had disappointed this leader, the conversation could have turned in a constructive direction. Fortunately, we both cooled down later and I apologized for my reacting.

When you are under stress, how does your lizard brain show up?

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[1] Peter I. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute), Kindle e-book, locations 313-325.

[2] Ibid, locations 325-334.