How to Create Space Between Distress and Your Response

Photo: Grant Faint/Getty Images

The space between stimulus and response is an important one. Philosophers have said it is in this space that our freedom lies.

When something unexpected happens — for example, an accident, a pandemic, a competitor acting unpredictably, and so on — people generally go down one of two roads: they either impulsively react or more thoughtfully respond; the former is automatic (and therefore not very free) whereas the later is conscious and intentional. In the past, I’ve written about a heuristic for responding that I call the 4 P’s: pause; process; plan; proceed. If you meet challenges by following this progression, you tend to make good choices, or at least not horrible ones.

Anyone can pause for a split second. Yet when emotions are running high, it is common to become overwhelmed by them, getting sucked back into the situation and reactivity after only a split second. It is true that more space is good, but creating more space is also hard. One way to do so is by labeling what you are feeling.

In a series of studies out of UCLA, researchers put participants in distressing and unplanned situations, like giving impromptu speeches in front of strangers. Half of the participants were instructed to feel and label their emotions: for instance, I feel tightness in my chest, I feel angst in my throat, or I feel heat in my palms. The other half of the participants were not instructed to do anything special. The participants who felt and labeled their emotions, what the researchers call “affect labeling,” had significantly less physiological arousal and less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear. The affect labelers also reported subjectively feeling more at ease during their speeches. What’s fascinating, and important to point out, is that people who deeply felt their feelings but did not label them actually had more angst. So this is a one-two punch: you’ve got to feel what is going, and then you’ve got to label it — the latter being every bit as important as the former.

In other words, it is the act of labeling that creates the space between stimulus and response.

If you simply feel what is going on, you are likely to get overly involved in those feelings, perhaps even fusing with them. Deeply feeling anxiety or despair or nervousness is no fun. But knowing or observing yourself experiencing any of those emotions is less bad. You can think of it like this: when you label you watch the action movie instead of being in it or consumed by it. As a result, you have more space and freedom to choose what to do next. What is happening on the screen may be intense, and it may be causing all kinds of emotions, but you are still separate from it.

The research on affect labeling is less than a decade old. But the concept dates back thousands of years. In ancient folklore, the the law of names states that knowing something’s true name gives you (the knower) power over it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the UCLA researchers also found that the more granular someone’s naming of an emotion is — say, longing instead of depression; or tightness or tingling instead of anxiety — the better off they are. This is yet another case of modern research supporting ancient wisdom. Knowing something’s name really does give you power of it, and the more exact — the more true — your naming is, the more power you have. With that additional power comes additional space. And with that additional space comes more freedom to respond instead of react.