Responding instead of reacting to fear

With the change of season and the fearful, vulnerable new reality the coronavirus pandemic brings, learn how to respond amidst the chaos rather than react.

Responding rather than reacting to fear


With the change of season and the new reality that the coronavirus pandemic brings—we need to respond mindfully rather than react now more than ever.

What set you off as you watched the coronavirus transform from a new strain of virus passed animal-to-human somewhere across the globe? When did it really set in with you that this was real? A pandemic, officially. No longer something over there or far away. Maybe even in your hometown or neighborhood by now.

Was it the empty, picked-over shelves at your local grocery store?

Was it the flood of fear-inducing headlines, live video feeds from the WHO, CDC and newscasts of global health officials and scientists all telling you to not touch your face while they unconsciously touched their own? The directives to suddenly distance yourself from others. Cancel travel plans. Stay home. Self-quarantine. Better yet, don’t even go into work! Wait, will there be any work?

Was it your elderly parent(s), or neighbor or friend sharing how hard it was to get groceries or toilet paper, or any help amidst all the chaos?

Woman panicking mouth open screaming with hands near face | Responding rather than reacting | Mindfulness | Conscious Content

“It’s how we respond to our fear and our sense of vulnerability, rather than reacting to it, that will define us and this extraordinary time for decades to come.”

While we’re in the midst of a growing pandemic, we’re also in the midst of a seasonal transition (from late Winter to Spring in the northern hemisphere). The combined vulnerability of the two puts us in touch with our own vulnerability and fear.

It’s how we respond mindfully to that fear and our sense of vulnerability, rather than reacting to it, that will define us and this extraordinary time for decades to come.

Using mindfulness, let’s explore how you can choose to respond in every moment rather than getting swept up with the tides of fear, vulnerability, reaction or panic; and how this powerful skill can support your relationships and guide your work in the world and your life.

What mindful responding looks like

Learning to habitually respond mindfully rather than react takes practice, self-awareness, intention and action. But first, let’s consider ways we’re collectively reacting or responding daily in our work and life, especially since the spread of COVID-19 escalated into a global pandemic.

Scenario 1: Basic self-responding

You’re having what feels like a busy work day and you need to use the bathroom, but you have a deadline.


Reacting to the fear of not meeting the deadline or letting people down, you never stop to use the bathroom.


You put your basic needs first and stop to use the bathroom. The work will still be there when you return.

Scenario 2: Responding to a trigger in relationship

In your virtual team meeting, a colleague says something that really hits you and you can feel it in your body.


Your impulse is to protect or hide the impact those words had on you. Two common ways we do this in a reaction is by shutting down and getting quiet and unresponsive (ruminating inside your head) or quickly blurting out whatever comes into your mind to defend against the uncomfortable physical sensation you feel.


You take a moment to pause. You notice the area of your body that felt the impact of the words. You also take note of the immediate feeling that came up. You then place your hand on that area and say something comforting that area such as:
It’s ok, I love you.
Or, “I’m here with you.
You can even add, “We’ll figure this out together after the meeting.”

Scenario 3: Responding to a collective trigger

You go to the grocery store to pick up your groceries for the week and enter to a room of picked-over, emptied shelves. You notice you can’t get basic necessities like toilet paper, garlic, rice and dried beans, hand sanitizer or fresh herbs and vegetables.


Feeling sudden anxiety, you frantically pace around the store grabbing an excess of anything and everything you remotely think you might need and stacking your cart to overflowing. Inside your head stories and potentially scary scenarios race through unchecked. Amidst your rush, you lose awareness of other people in the store and even run your cart into someone accidentally.


Noticing a sensation of anxiety or fear in your body or anxious thoughts / stories forming in your mind, you stop your cart to take a breath. Placing your hand wherever the sensations of anxiety or fear arise in your body, you say to yourself:
I am safe right now.
There will be enough for me.”
I have everything I need.”

Scenario 4: Responding to a social trigger

At the local pharmacy, you notice more than a few people buying excessive amounts of bottled water and hand sanitizer while older shoppers, moving more slowly, look on helplessly.


Thinking about your family back home, you sense a tightening or fluttering in your chest as you look on. Suddenly more vigilant than before, you begin strategizing about how to make sure you get what you need or out-maneuver these other shoppers. You cut in front of people to get what you need, clearing the shelves of the last items and hoarding them in your garage at home.


Thinking about your family at home, you sense a tightening or fluttering in your chest as you look on. You stop rolling your cart, pulling it over at the end of the aisle. You close your eyes and breathe in deeply. You recognize the sensation of “vigilance” is alive in you. So, you say to yourself internally,
I am safe and secure in this moment,” followed by,
“there is enough for everyone.”
Or, “I trust myself to meet any challenges that arise when they come.
I trust that I will be taken care of.”

Scenario 5: Responding to a work trigger as a leader

As a manager in the service industry, your company’s leadership lets you know that projections for the rest of the year don’t look good as customers evaporate and company stock plummets.


Feeling like the bottom of your stomach dropped out, you begin talking yourself up while sharing what you don’t like about members of your team or other groups/departments. You scramble to put together numbers that exemplify your contribution to the team and company and you don’t dare share this information with anyone else. You define a list of those whose roles you believe are no longer necessary to share with leadership.


Noticing how this news impacts you physically, you take a walk outside to get some fresh air and change the scenery. While walking, you feel into your sensations and name what you’re feeling as “a fear of losing your job” and “a story that you might be forced to lay off members of your team.” Approaching a small knoll, you take a seat on the grass. There you promise yourself that you’ll bring the team together via teleconference the next day, share the news transparently and open the floor for their ideas and contributions. This isn’t something you have to carry or decide on in a vacuum. You know that distributing the burden can ignite creative ideas and deepen the group’s shared resilience to move through the challenge together.

“Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.”

Tara Brach “Reaching Out For Compassion

The five qualities of responding mindfully

Freckle-faced woman looking into distance | Conscious Awareness tips for responding | Conscious Content

Do you notice what the above example scenarios all have in common? There are a few common qualities that define a mindful response and differentiate it from reacting.

  • Responding always starts with a pause.
  • Responding gets curious.
  • Responding makes contact with the present experience.
  • Responding tries not to identify with the experience.
  • Responding takes responsibility for how it feels.

Responding in mindfulness always starts with a pause

Responding mindfully starts with a pause—whether it’s a breath, closing the eyes or removing oneself from the situation. This momentary choice gives the reptilian brain‘s “primitive drives related to thirst, hunger, sexuality, and territoriality,” an opportunity to respond differently than past or habitual behaviors and impulses might have it respond, describes Andrew E. Budson M.D. in “Psychology Today.” This opens up a new set of possible outcomes.

Responding gets curious

Responding mindfully observes the situation and the impact and identifies what’s there in the moment. This mindful response brings awareness to what and where the sensation or emotion is. Using mindfulness, a response would begin by asking simple questions like:

  • Is there a sensation here?
  • Is there an emotion here?
  • Is there a belief here?
  • Is there a story here that I’m telling myself?
  • Is there an assumption here that I’ve made?

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

“The beauty of this tool,” explains Hokuma Karimova, MA and author of The Emotion Wheel: What It Is and How to Use It, “is in its ability to simplify complex concepts. Understanding is a crucial step to solving any dilemma. When the question concerns our emotions that we process on a subconscious level, it can be hard to first identify and verbalize our needs.

This is why the tool is so useful. It enables the user to visualize their emotions, and understand which combinations of emotions created this outcome.”

Once responding receives an answer to the questions above, it gets more curious and more specific (while keeping its questions simple). A deeper response, or exploration in mindfulness, wants to know where and what kind of sensation, emotion, belief, story or assumption is present. It might inquire:

  • Sensation: where is it in my body right now? (Name the location.)
  • Emotion: which emotion is here right now? (Name the basic emotion.)
  • Belief: what am I believing right now? (Name the belief in a brief sentence.)
  • Story: what’s the story I’m telling myself right now? Imagining? (Briefly name the story or what you are imagining.)
  • Assumption: what assumption might I be making right now? Is it true? (Name the assumption.)

    Tip: An assumption, by nature, is not based in fact. Anything that you cannot validate when you ask yourself if it’s true is likely an assumption.

“Compassion can be described as letting ourselves be touched by the vulnerability and suffering that is within ourselves and all beings. The full flowering of compassion also includes action: Not only do we attune to the presence of suffering, we respond to it.”

Tara Brach “Reaching Out For Compassion
Woman with her hands over he heart | responding to fear | Conscious Content

Responding mindfully makes contact with the present experience

When we’re responding mindfully rather than reacting to fear, making contact with the vulnerable part of our body where we’re feeling the emotion (we’ve now named) brings our presence there.

Making contact with one’s experience can look like:

  • Noticing the area of the body where we feel the sensation or emotion.
  • Touching that area of the body with the hand.
  • Speaking to that area of the body.

Mindfully responding tries not to identify with the experience

Reaction gets caught up in identifying with fear and vulnerability—making itself wrong, others bad or speaking in a language like, “I am {the experience}.” Rather than, “I am experiencing {the experience} right now.” The reaction cannot differentiate itself from the sensation, emotion or experience.

Responding doesn’t seek to make wide-reaching judgments or decisions about the experience. Responding recognizes sensation, emotion and experience as transient and evolving. Experience both moves and changes from moment-to-moment. Experience may take multiple forms or completely pass in a matter of seconds. What’s the sense in identifying with something that you are certain will change at any given moment?

Responding takes responsibility for how it feels

Woman's hands crossed in front of her | Conscious Awareness tips for responding | Conscious Content

Responding doesn’t blame itself, the situation or others for how it feels. It takes ownership of the sensation, its emotion, its own mindset, belief or story and its assumptions. When we’re responding we aren’t judging, blaming, attacking or trying to control or dominate a situation, another person or ourselves.

It isn’t necessary to strategize, manipulate or coerce to get our needs met or get what we think we want when we’re responding; because we are meeting those needs ourselves and offering ourselves what we actually need.

“What am I doing right now to contribute to what I’m feeling?”

Kevin Brown, LPC with Austin Mindfulness Center

When we’re responding we can be gentle with our imperfect selves, patient, kind. We notice, name and meet ourselves first; then we do the same for others and the situation. And, we can be honest when we’re not being that way and hold ourselves accountable. We can mindfully ask ourselves in the moment, “what am I doing right now to contribute to what I’m feeling?” or how am I behaving? What am I believing?

These simple acts of mindfulness create safety and trust both within oneself and with others, which in turn fosters more care, more compassion and more responding with mindfulness.

Writer, Sr. Technical Program Manager, Sadhana Consultant and Inner Realm Guide at Conscious Content
Carolyn (Koa) Elder is a published writer and Senior technical program manager who’s been writing and consulting for more than a decade with startups, nonprofits and conscious businesses, digital agencies, and fortune 50s to 500s in the Top 50 list.

Beginning in 2011, she invested more deeply in her own mindfulness exploration and education as a Sahaja yoga/meditation guide and two-time apprentice of spiritual teacher and humanitarian, Vanessa Stone. Carolyn is an Ayurvedic Sadhana Consultant, having completed training in 2018 under her teacher, Maya Tiwari. Maya served for two decades as a Vedic monk belonging to India’s prestigious Veda Vyasa lineage and is the founder of Wise Earth School of Ayurveda.

Carolyn is currently immersed in her practicum after graduating from a two-year comprehensive Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy practitioner training through Hakomi Institute Southwest.

Founder of Conscious Content, a mindfulness movement for business that serves the greater collective good, her intention is to bring ancient mindfulness technology first to individuals, and then their teams and organizations to connect them more authentically with themselves, one another, and their tribe.

Conscious Content’s guiding inquiry is: what would business look like if work became our sadhana—our personal growth practice?

Her chosen name, Koa, is of Hawaiian origin and means fearless and courageous.

Her given surname, Elder, is of Scottish origin and signifies one who is wiser, older and quite possibly born near the Elderberry tree.
Carolyn Elder

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2 years ago

[…] And most importantly, what do you do about what you notice? Sense? Feel? Think? Do you respond? […]

3 years ago

[…] is a better way, and it’s through responding rather than reacting. In this case, responding starts by mindfully changing the conversation wherever we engage in it: […]

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