The tyranny of the moment: Controlling reactions in times of stress

  • Ruth Baker
  • 20 March 2017

You’ve been working on that project solidly. It’s taken every ounce of thought, care, preparation and time available. You’ve planned it within an inch of its life—and then the photocopier breaks, email goes down, or your operating system crashes. This is where you want to hit your computer with a hammer and then throw it out the window.

Or maybe you have perfectly planned for tomorrow. The lunchboxes are prepped. The uniforms are laid out. The homework is in the school bag. The permission note for the excursion is signed. The shoes are lined up and ready. And yet, come 8am, here we are again. Shoes have disappeared. Breakfast is barely touched. “These socks are uncomfortable.” “My buttons don’t work.” “He took my toothbrush.” More often than not, this is the point where you lose your patience, start squashing hats onto little heads, and give up on brushing teeth altogether.

And even though you know you need to take a deep breath, when your husband or friend or Bible study leader squeezes your arm and gently and lovingly reminds you of a wonderful calming Bible verse, your hands stiffen into claws and you whirl round with eyes flashing and scream “I know!”

In hindsight we know it’s not wise. It’s not godly or gracious; it’s not big or clever. But in the moment, we just don’t seem to remember. And yes, we know about prayer and petition (Phil 4:6), and we know to think on whatever is noble and pure (Phil 4:8), but how do we actually do that in the moment?

Proverbs 25:28 says: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls”. Without self-control we are without defences and are easily overwhelmed by the stresses of the moment, because there is nothing to stop the army of negative thoughts. We react to the sudden attack like we’ve been ambushed. Our amygdala (part of the brain’s emotional control system) goes into fight or flight mode and our bodies become flooded with adrenaline to cope with the immediate threat.

Taking a deep breath and calming down seems great in theory, but once we’re in that mode it’s too late to make rational decisions about our reactions. I’ve also heard it said that, in the history of calming down, nobody has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

So what’s the answer? Because we know this is not God’s plan for us (Col 3:8; Jas 1:19; Prov 29:11).

If the time to deal with the issue is not in the moment, then we need to deal with it before the moment. Having no defensive walls doesn’t mean they can’t be built, and this is exactly what we need to do. We need to gradually build up our defences so that when we are under attack by our emotions we can cope a little better.

Pray for the right thing

Everything begins with prayer. We need to pray for the right thing though. We can pray for our kids to be better and for technology to run smoother and for our spouses to be more understanding or for a friend to be kinder. But it’s probably better to pray for greater patience, calm, self-control. Pray for God to continue his good work in us by building our defences in a way that results in reactions produced from a stronger, godlier heart.

Prayer also has a meditative effect that can help to build self-control. Just a minute every day focusing on breathing and refusing distraction can dramatically increase our capacity for self-control. When mixed with prayer the effect could be increased again.

Work out your trigger points

There are some things I always get worked up about. Being aware of them isn’t a trick, but it helps to start taking control back. We might move from being aware one of those moments is coming (like the school run or a deadline) and alert to our reactions, to being in the moment, and then to being able to stop long enough to recognize “Oh, I’m doing it again”. In that nanosecond of recognition, we have enough separation from our amygdaline response to choose to respond differently.

Study yourself and the Word

A personal devotion or Bible study on patience or self-control is a good way to reflect on what God says about managing our emotions. This helps guide our prayer and start building those defences, rooted in Scripture and directed by God.


None of these things are a silver bullet. They take time. But each time may get a little easier. Like with all things, if we stop exercising the muscles get weak, so there is always an ongoing process of practice and improvement.


A mark of Christian maturity we all should be aiming for is repenting quickly. We’re never going to be perfect at controlling our emotions in the moment. It’s good to apologise to our kids, spouse or friend. It’s okay to say “I’m still working on this”. And say this to God. Pray in repentance and humility that our words would reflect our emotions, our emotions reflect our hearts, and our hearts reflect God.