The cockroach theory: Reacting versus responding to emotional triggers
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There is a fine line between reacting versus responding. The difference lies in taking time to mindfully respond rather than having a purely emotional reaction to a stimulus. Though it takes time and practice, learning to respond to potentially triggering situations can improve interpersonal relationships and mental health.

The cockroach theory is a new spin on reactionism introduced by Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer (C.E.O.) of Google, Inc. Pichai frames his message in the context of an occasion during which he observed a cockroach landing on various people at a restaurant. The patrons had intense emotional reactions to the large insect until a waiter calmly removed it from the premises. As Pichai explains, “It is not the cockroach, but the inability of those people to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach, that disturbed [them].”

Some feel that the cockroach theory trivializes the powerful nature of emotional triggers by implying that the individual has complete control over them. Suggesting that someone who fears, or even strongly dislikes, cockroaches can simply take a deep breath and respond rationally might be considered offensive to that individual since fear and anxiety are relative. However, Pichai’s narrative simply serves as an example to juxtapose reactions and responses, while suggesting that the latter is a learned behavior that can be self-trained.

Though taking time in the moment to think and act with intention is often easier said than done, it is possible with practice. Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., advises that individuals who exhibit strong reactions examine emotional triggers in an attempt to better understand and reduce them. She explains, “Pay close attention to the results of your reactions. By bringing negative consequences to your awareness, you will be more motivated to change your reaction to a desired response.”

Responses do not have to be meticulously thought through or completely emotionless, as this is not realistic or healthy. However, when an individual notices a trigger, he or she can take a moment of mindfulness to determine an intention and speak or act with that in mind. This improves relationships, as volatile or emotionally-charged reactions can lead to animosity and misunderstandings. Mindfulness exercises implemented to avoid reacting can also decrease anxiety and improve overall mental health.

If you or a loved one is grappling with anxiety, help is available. The Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals facing mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call to speak with a professional today.

Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer

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