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#7: UNHOOKING: From Reactivity to Freedom


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ATTACHMENT BITES


The other night, I found myself in one of those moments that just felt… perfect. It was baby Mia’s bedtime. She had been yawning and rubbing her eyes (all systems go for sleep!). I smiled with warmth and joy in my heart as I gently rocked this tiny 9-month-old human in my arms and watched as she peacefully coasted into sleep. Some nights, putting Mia to bed feels like weathering gale-force winds. But this one felt serene. Like I said, perfect… 


Right up until the moment I gently lowered her down into her crib and as she barely touched down onto her mattress, she startled and rocketed into a wailing siren cry.


Just like that – POOF! – the peace, serenity, and beauty I was enjoying evaporated in a flash. 




Suddenly and without warning I found myself all fired up with resistance and irritation – clinging to the peacefulness that was no longer present. I was attached to the way things were. I wanted the delicious peacefulness. I wanted an easeful transfer to bed. I wanted my freedom to finish my dinner and continue my “education” in the Sopranos. I really didn’t want more crying. And I really, really didn’t want the physical strain of bouncing Mia back to sleep for five, ten, fifteen, maybe thirty minutes. I was ensnared in my own resistance, covered in second arrows, and engulfed in the feeling of being stuck.   


You know exactly the feeling I’m talking about. We all do. It’s an awful feeling. In Tibetan, there’s a special word for this stuck feeling called “shenpa.” Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes the suffering of shenpa as “getting hooked.” And when we get hooked by shenpa, it’s remarkably easy to get stuck in our reactivity.


Getting hooked can happen anytime, anywhere. Just like a fish biting a hook, we might be going about our day when something seemingly small snags us, and we're suddenly caught up in a struggle. Sometimes the trigger is obvious, like when someone cuts us off in traffic, or when a coworker makes a rude comment. Other times, the hook is subtler – a self-critical thought crosses our minds, or someone gives us a certain look in passing that sets us off. Before we know it, we're all worked up. We get tense. We close down. 


Like the fish on the line, we instinctively fight against the hooked feeling. We try to wriggle away from it, distract ourselves, or in some cases ignore it. This struggle only worsens the situation, fueling a spiral of negativity and leading to reactive behaviors we often regret. When we're hooked, it's incredibly difficult to think clearly and respond skillfully. 



THE SCIENCE OF GETTING HOOKED


This feeling of being hooked has a scientific basis in what's called our "automatic stress reactivity." Remember the diagram of stress reactivity from MBSR below? 



In order to comprehend the "hook," let's take a closer look at the lightning fast automatic stress response:

  1. Trigger: Something happens – we receive a critical comment, experience an anxious thought, or get stuck in a traffic jam.

  2. Appraisal: We perceive this trigger as a threat with a sense of negativity or strong aversion. This perception is often colored by our past experiences and conditioning.

  3. Getting Hooked: The combination of the trigger and our negative appraisal creates the feeling of being hooked:

    1. Physically, we might experience tightness, tension, or a racing heart.

    2. Emotionally, there's often a surge of anger, sadness, fear, or a mix.

    3. Mentally, our thoughts might spiral into negativity, blame, or worry.

  4. Automatic Reaction:  A powerful urge to do something about the discomfort takes over, and the hooked state fuels an automatic response. Depending on our conditioning, we might lash out, withdraw, seek distractions, or beat ourselves up with aggressive self-talk.

The exact point when we experience the hooked feeling can vary slightly depending on the situation and our level of mindfulness. 


UNHOOKING YOURSELF

The good news is, unlike a fish, we can learn to unhook ourselves.

 

With mindfulness practice, we can learn to spot the subtle signs of shenpa the moment we start to feel tight or reactive. This awareness is the first step in breaking the automatic chain and responding to triggers more skillfully. 


“The very first and most important step in breaking free from a lifetime of stress reactivity is to be aware of what is actually happening while it is happening.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

By recognizing that tightening feeling and learning to stay present with the discomfort, we can break free from the automatic knee-jerk reactions that typically follow close behind. 


This process might sound simple (maybe even easy) on paper, but let’s be honest – it’s incredibly challenging. It takes lots of practice and in the words of our friend and Pause community member, Noel, “gobs and GOBS of kindness!” But the more we notice the hooks and pause mindfully, the better we get at responding to life's challenges with skill and compassion.


UNHOOKING STEP BY STEP


Here are the steps to skillfully unhook yourself. 


Step 1: Recognize 

The first step is to become aware of when you're “hooked.” That is, when your survival brain is in control. Being aware means tuning into physical, emotional, mental, and/or behavioral signals that indicate a shift into reactive survival mode. Physically, you might notice an increased heart rate, shallow or quick breathing, muscle tension/contraction, or a feeling of unease in your stomach. Emotionally, a sudden onset of fear, anger, frustration, or anxiety could be the signs. Mentally, you might find yourself with racing thoughts, struggling to concentrate, or becoming fixated on a particular issue. Behaviorally, you may notice signs such as a shift in your communication style, perhaps becoming more aggressive or defensive. You might also find yourself engaging in negative coping strategies, like overeating, drinking, or withdrawing from social interactions. Alternatively, you may experience an urge to act impulsively, a difficulty in listening to others, or a tendency to catastrophize situations. These signals indicate that your survival brain reactivity is taking over. Recognizing these signs as they appear paves the way to shift towards wise brain responsiveness.


Step 2: Pause 

After recognizing that you're hooked, the next step is to pause. This means grounding yourself in the present moment – notice the contact of your feet on the ground, take a deep breath, step back from the situation, or simply note your feelings without immediately reacting. This pause disrupts the automatic response loop, giving your wise brain a chance to come online.


Step 3: Name It To Tame It 

Once you've paused, try to identify and name your feelings. This process helps shift the neural activity from your survival brain (amygdala – alarm center) to your wise brain (prefrontal cortex – executive control center), reducing the intensity of the emotion and helping you understand why it's there. Is it fear? Anger? Anxiety? Naming the emotion can help tame it.


Step 4: Allow + Relax + Release 

Now, with your wise brain engaged, you can explore allowing, relaxing, and releasing the emotion. This isn't about denying or suppressing your feelings, but first about simply allowing the emotion some space to be there. Sometimes allowing is all that you need. Sometimes, other techniques like conscious relaxation and deep breathing can help you soften around or through the emotional energy in a way that helps release the “hooked” feeling.


Step 5: Practice Kindness 

Lastly, bring a sense of kindness or warmth into your experience. This is about accepting and treating yourself with compassion, which supports the activity of your wise brain. Recognize that it's natural to feel the way you do, and extend the same kindness to yourself that you would to a dear friend, family member, or colleague. You could offer yourself a gentle or soothing gesture – like a hand over your heart or your abdomen. You could also offer yourself kind words of encouragement ("It's okay...it makes sense to feel this way....this is hard....this will also pass"). This process can help lessen the impact of emotional triggers over time.


PAUSING TO THE RESCUE


One of the most powerful tools for skillfully working with those moments when we get hooked is the simple practice of pausing. Pausing creates space for kindness towards ourselves, a reconnection with our intentions, and a deeper understanding of what truly matters. When we feel caught in the whirlwind of reactivity, a pause allows us to find grounding. By intentionally practicing the pause in our daily lives, we train ourselves to recognize the hook and respond with mindful awareness rather than automatic reaction. 


Here are three ways to strategically pause:


  • Proactive Pause Practice pausing proactively in your daily life. Set aside dedicated moments for stillness and reflection, such as through meditation, journaling, or engaging in mindful activities like walking in nature. Proactively pausing cultivates a habit of creating mental and emotional space, enabling you to respond more skillfully when faced with triggers.

    • Body Scans: Regular body scans help you become more aware of subtle tension building up before you get fully hooked.

  • Responsive Pause When faced with a triggering situation, consciously choose to pause before responding. Take a deep breath, sense your feet on the ground, relax the tension in your body, and allow yourself a moment to acknowledge any emotions you’re feeling and gather your thoughts. This pause creates an opportunity to disengage from automatic reactions and connect with your wiser self.

    • Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself. Remember, getting hooked is a natural human reaction. Offer yourself understanding instead of judgment.

    • Anchor Phrase: Use a grounding phrase that brings you back to the present moment with acceptance and kindness. For example "This too shall pass" or "May I find peace in this moment."

  • Reflective Pause Reflect on a situation after it has happened from a broader perspective. Review all the factors—inner and outer—that contributed to the reactivity. Explore the underlying emotions and motivations and consider alternative viewpoints. This reflective process helps you gain insights and promotes response flexibility.

    • Visualization: Imagine you're back in the moment you were hooked, and practice pausing, breathing, naming the emotion, allowing, softening, and soothing.



THE FREEDOM FROM UNHOOKING


The experience with my daughter Mia highlights how swiftly peace can evaporate and reactivity can take over.  This is where the wisdom of the "two-arrows" parable comes in. The first arrow –  Mia's crying – is an unavoidable part of life. But those moments of being hooked, the frustration and resistance, are like firing a second arrow at ourselves. Unhooking teaches us how to step back and avoid this unnecessary additional suffering.


By becoming familiar with the signs of being hooked, practicing the mindful pause, and treating ourselves with kindness, we begin to unhook from the automatic patterns that limit us. Each time we notice the tightening, consciously pause, and allow our emotions space, we strengthen our ability to respond with clarity and compassion rather than blind reactivity. The added bonus, is that when we seriously take on the project of working with our places of stuckness, we start to recognize when others are hooked. This, too, gives us greater choice and skill for navigating difficult conversations and other people’s emotional reactivity.  


This practice isn't about eliminating challenges or difficult emotions; it's about cultivating a wiser, more skillful relationship with them. Remember, unhooking is a skill. And with continued mindfulness practice, we discover a greater sense of freedom and ease as we navigate this vast and unpredictable ocean of human experience.


Have you identified situations – places/people/experiences – that hook you easily?

What has helped you most to get unhooked?


Please share your thoughts/insights/comments below!


With love,

Ryan

1 Comment


Guest
Mar 10

Thank you for another insightful post, Ryan! I’ve found a lot of comfort and ease in difficult moments by reminding myself that this [emotion/ sensation/ thought] is not “me”. It’s just an experience passing through me. Much like the sky does not become the cloud or even the violent storm, but rather holds or weathers the cloud or storm as they pass. This helps me avoid getting hooked while reminding me that it’s temporary. ☁️ 🌧️ ⛅️ ☀️ ❤️

-Jessica

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