Are you a Reactor or Responder?

In Full Catastrophe Living (1990), Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founding father and guru of MBSR training) makes a significant distinction between stress reaction and a stress response, “Stress reactions are generally fueled by unconscious habitual patterns, often learned from past challenges and experiences. These patterns include maladaptive coping or extreme emotional reactions such as smoking, drinking, angry outbursts, workaholism, excessive productivity, denial, and general busyness and in the long run often lead to mental and physical breakdown. A stress response, on the other hand, involves acknowledging emotions rather than suppressing them while also developing tools for working with them. As you learn to respond to stress mindfully, you can gradually begin to break old default patterns of unawareness associated with stress reactions, opening the door to new ways of working with stress and transforming it. Awareness is like bringing a light to the darkness of mindless reactions. Once you can see them more clearly, you can choose to respond more skillfully.”

As I always say, “You cannot change, what you are not aware of,” and this above passage illustrates why I am so adamant about athletes learning how to be aware and skillfully manage our internal experiences. Most Type A athletes are driven to control every factor that they can, but very few seek to control their internal experience (thoughts, feelings, reactions, and the patterns in which they arise). Let’s be real here, most Type A athletes deal with emotions (typically anxiety) by controlling as many things in their lives as possible. This is in no way a judgment. I am a licensed clinical psychologist so athlete or not I have my fair share of experience and expertise in pegging personality patterns when I see them. I appreciate the strengths and challenge areas that all personalities bring. However, we all come with “old default patterns (of thinking, feeling, and reacting) of unawareness” and it’s my job to help athletes become aware and empower themselves to control/manage/change such patterns. Chrissie Wellington is a great example of a Type A athlete that has learned how to control and respond to stressful race situations. On the other hand, Norman Stadler is still the poster child for a reactive type of athlete that lost control and threw his bike at Kona when he got his second puncture.

Stress Response example:

Stress Reaction example:

Mindfulness skills training helps us to become aware of the impulses and reactions (be them emotional or behavioral) that we all have. However by being mindful we are empowered and wise enough to not buy into our first reaction, and to know that are other alternatives/solutions/tools that we possess that allow us to wisely and skillfully respond to the stimulus or situation at hand.

In my opinion the hallmark trait that differentiates an average athlete from an excellent athlete is not found in outcome or race results, standing, or podium. It is found in their cognitive flexibility- to adapt, to reassess, and execute as the race unfolds. It is the ability to internally ground yourself in what you know to be true and real when everything else around you appears to be chaos. It is in how we respond to the unexpected that brings to light the true nature of our ability and where our limitations lie. It is my belief that are no limits other than the ones that our “old default patterns of unawareness” tell us that we have.


Can you mentally keep your cool, regroup, and move on as efficiently as possible when the unexpected arises? Or do you immediately think of the worst case scenario and buy into that stressful and upset feeling when something does not go according to plan? Do you find yourself worrying about people passing you or “what if’s” during race day? Or do you remind yourself to keep your pace and that you are doing what you need to do for your game day plan?

Source: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Bob Stahl PhD (Author), Elisha Goldstein PhD (Author), Saki Santorelli EdD MA (Afterword), Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD (Foreword)

Published by

Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is a clinical sport psychologist, triathlete, and certified mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California. She works with elite athletes and sports teams across the country. She is a competitive athlete and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family, and traveling.

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