At some point in our lives, nearly all of us have had the experience of finding our thoughts suddenly consumed by an emotion. When this happens, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed and out of control.

The Physical Effects of Feeling our Emotions

In addition to disrupting our normal thought patterns and routines, experiencing the full intensity of our emotions often brings out a host of physical responses. In addition to feeling stuck and out of sorts, it’s common to feel unpleasant sensations throughout our bodies: flushed faces, sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, a pounding chest, nausea and dizziness. Since these sensations are uncomfortable and embarrassing, many seek to avoid their emotions as much as possible, at least in the workplace.

Positive Effects of Emotion

While our emotions can provoke a powerful response in our minds and bodies, being self-aware of our emotions is not necessarily a bad thing. While we tend to view emotions that we believe are positive more favorably, such as love, even emotions that we tend to think of as negative, such as anger, can result in a positive outcome. This is especially true when an emotion brings a situation to our attention and prompts us to make a change that improves the situation.

Negative Impact of Emotion

Emotions have the power to inspire and motivate us, but they can also be disruptive and devastating. This is particularly true when an emotion is so overwhelming that it paralyses us and leaves us unable to think clearly and take action so that we can move forward.

Many of us mistakenly believe that all it takes is a bit of will power and determination to control our emotions. That if we just suppress our feelings and deny their existence then the emotion and the uncomfortable mental and physical responses that it brings will simply go away with time.

Why Suppression Never Works

According to research conducted at Columbia and reported on in David Rock’s bookYour Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, denying our emotions doesn’t work. In fact, actively suppressing how you are feeling may actually increase the duration and intensity of the emotion that you are trying to control! This is because the brain’s limbic system helps to regulate and control our instincts and moods, and the act of suppression increases the neural activity in this area of the brain.

Using the Power of Words to Gain Control of Your Emotion

Breaking free from the effects of an overwhelming emotional response doesn’t have to be a long and time consuming process. According to the latest edition of the book by the neuroscientist Dr. Alex KorbThe Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time,you can disrupt the hold that your limbic system has on your mood and regain control of your thoughts by activating the prefrontal cortex area of your brain.

The prefrontal cortex is the area of our brain that is involved in the processing our complex thoughts as well as planning. It also helps to regulate three of the main neurotransmitters that help to control our moods: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

Feelings of greater self-control and an increased ability to order our thoughts is the natural result of an increase in neural activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Steps to Break Free From an Emotional Response

The next time that you find yourself overwhelmed by emotion, use the following strategies to redirect your brain’s focus from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex.

  1. Don’t try to suppress the emotion that you are feeling.
  2. Acknowledge the emotion and sensations that you are feeling.
  3. Label the emotion by using a few words to describe it. As you label the emotion, go ahead and speak its name out loud to reduce its power even further.

Emotions can both improve and disrupt our daily lives, but it is possible to harness the power of our brain and get it to work for us, rather than against us! If you would like to learn more about how to use the power of your mind to improve other leadership skills.

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