Proactive vs. Reactive
So much of the work I do with children, teens, and adults is not just about skill building but about understanding situations. Cause and effect is one of the most basic concepts we learn but is easily forgotten. If you look back at your day, I’m sure you can find many of examples of if you had thought a little more before you did something, maybe your action would have been different. Maybe you wouldn’t have made a comment on a friend’s Instagram or you would have asked your science teacher about the study guide before the test. How about the time you thought you knew when spirit week was but forgot to dress up like all of your classmates?
Cause and effect happens with most things that we do. If I am nice to my friends, they enjoy my company and we do more fun things together. If I am mean to my friends, maybe they go and hang out without me. Ultimately, we can try and manipulate how events work, but the reality is we have no control outside of ourselves. Using this knowledge brings us to the concepts of proactive and reactive.
Let’s start by defining what these two words mean. Proactive means to act before something happens. An example would be looking both ways before crossing the street. Reactive means to act after something happens. Someone who is reactive would wait until they have already had a sunburn to put on sunscreen.
In talking with my clients about anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles, we try to find proactive ways to manage their stress. For example, waiting until after a panic attack to use a calming skills would be reactive. We instead try to journal regularly and identify areas or situations that may cause panic attacks and manage them prior to being exposed.
Clients will often tell me that the simple idea of acting before an event can sometimes be more powerful then using the coping skill itself. The reason for this is that when you use the skill prior to a stressor, you are taking control of your mental health. We do not need to be passive participants in our happiness or well being, but instead, by acting first, we can help tame the situation.
Now just because someone is proactive, it does not mean that they will always avoid distress. What we are looking to do is to give ourselves the greatest opportunity for success. 100% of the time, if you act in a proactive manner, you will have better success than if you were to act in a reactive manner.
Test this concept out for yourself. Identify a thing that stresses you out. Maybe it’s an upcoming test in school, a meeting with your boss, or even an upcoming social event. Now make a list of the steps you can take before this event. Prior to the event, take those steps and proactively watch yourself move toward your own happiness.