Habitual Thoughts and Reactivity — So What?

By Clare Wilkinson & Sonya Staton.

Why is it that our thoughts take us out of the present moment on one day and not on another, temporarily distracting us and leading us to places we’d rather not go? For example, one day, simply thinking about having to contact a call centre, can seem an unpleasant stimulus. The thought, ‘Oh no, not that!’ springs up, because we know we’ve had problems with similar situations in the past. And yet we don’t know what will happen this time. There may be no difficulties at all. Our negative thoughts about ringing the call centre are a habitual reaction to our assumption that all will not necessarily go well. However, the same thought (about ringing) on another day might not provoke the same reactivity.

So why, if we can manage not to react on one day, do we react on another to what appears to be the same trigger? There may be many factors at play here, but taking the day where the thought: ‘I have to ring the call centre’, gives rise to the secondary ‘Oh no, not that’ thought, the first step is simply to recognise that we have already reacted – the second is a negative thought that has come up in reaction to the first.

Having recognised our initial reaction, our next step might be to remember that we’ve reacted negatively before. However, if we can step away from our thoughts and see them as an habitual pattern, then we could come back later and think things through afresh. But is this easy to do, especially if things haven’t been going well on that particular day? We may even want to have a problem, any problem to chew over. There may even be an underlying desire to blame others, such as the call centre, for all the ills in the world.

Once we can recognise our attachment to having, or even creating problems, there’s an opportunity to stop before an initial reaction on our part and avoid going down any habitual path. We can then register the importance of stopping in response to what we’re thinking. Having stopped, we’re in with a chance of noticing precisely what’s going on within us.

It’s beginning to sound as if the problem to be dealt with here isn’t the specific situation. It’s the habitual reaction on our part. We need to take a different approach by stopping before any potential ‘Oh no, not that!’ and notice exactly what’s going on, then maybe there’s a possibility of bringing curiosity to the situation. Stopping our desired immediate reaction at its source is important if we want to bring about a change in our thought and behaviour. If we’re irritated by the thought of contacting the call centre, then it’s likely that such irritation will be noticeable when finally speaking with the call centre staff.

Generalising a little here, a common perception in dealing with call centres is that life is put on hold whilst waiting to hear a human voice.  A common reaction might be to experience impatience and irritation, both of which would involve us pulling ourselves away from our best bodily shape. Such ‘pulling out of shape’ hurts us. It’s important therefore, to be on the lookout and to become aware of the stimuli that provoke this habitual reaction. Becoming aware of the stimuli life presents, allows us to recognise the triggers that prompt any habitual reactivity. If we pause, we have a choice. Either we can react with impatience and irritation (the result of pulling ourselves out of shape), or we can give our attention to something else, for example, how we’re sitting. We can bring awareness to our feet on the floor, the chair taking our weight, our fingers perhaps in contact with the phone as our arms and hands are supported by the shoulder girdle. In doing so, we are giving ourselves the best chance of letting go of the unnecessary muscular activity we are creating, all because of the way we have reacted.

If we need to take a moment out from the situation, we can put the phone onto speaker, pause again, place our hands in our lap, before once again picking up the phone. In this way, we’ve allowed ourselves to change what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

It’s our interpretation of any situation that can lead us to behaviour which makes things worse for us. We can choose to make a fresh decision each time we’re faced with the stimulus of connecting with a call centre. If we don’t, it’s very likely we’ll revert to the same habitual reaction.

What we have is an opportunity to give ourselves space; space to consider how we may respond and act. We can also change a piece of our behaviour for the better, not only for ourselves, but also for those we speak with on the other end of the phone as well as anyone else we come into contact with in our daily lives.