Imagine being stopped at a red light, waiting to go through the intersection. The turn arrow goes green and there is an impulse to take your foot off the brake and get going, but you manage to stay put. This is an example of response inhibition and it’s a skill that can be developed to do more than help us keep a good driving record – it can help improve almost every aspect of our emotional lives.
None of us set out in the morning in the hope of encountering unpleasant situations, yet most of us can recall a time when we ‘lost control’ or ‘flew off the handle’ while in the grip of an emotion. Improving response inhibition can save us from saying something a little embarrassing or even help us defuse a difficult or volatile situation. In short, it can help reduce the number of regrettable emotional episodes we experience and the good news is we don’t have to spend hours a day sitting at traffic lights to develop it.
Simple practices that increase our attention such as those studied in the Shamatha Project have been shown to dramatically increase response inhibition. This means that improving our concentration will actually help us gain more control over our reactions to the people and situations we encounter in everyday life. With this improved concentration we are in a much better position to inhibit responses that we think will be destructive.
Although this gives us quite a lot of control over our emotional lives by minimizing destructive episodes, we don’t need to stop there. Once we are no longer automatically responding to all of our emotional triggers, we have time to experiment and see what responses might be the most constructive. Usually these responses will be acting with more kindness and compassion – what psychologists like to call ‘Pro-social behaviours.’ These are qualities that have been shown to have enormous benefit for our physical and mental health and can also be cultivated effectively once we have more attentional skills.
We have little control over the events we encounter in our lives, but we can develop skills which will help us choose how we respond to those events. Next time the arrow goes green and you keep the car still, smile knowing that you are on your way to a happier and more constructive emotional life.