Controlling our emotions with mindfulness

Most people either forget, or don’t know, that our complex human brains can be subdivided into the ‘old brain’ (sometimes known as the emotional brain) and the ‘new brain’ (sometimes called the rational brain).

The old brain is genetically engineered to keep us alive – it reacts almost instantaneously to perceived threats or dangers by creating strong emotional responses (such as fear, anger, and anxiety); a defence mechanism that served us well in our hunter/gatherer past.

Fight or flight

The ‘fight or flight’ response is a typical, emotionally driven response to danger, in which our bodies are equipped, almost instantaneously and without conscious control, with the resources needed to fight the danger or flee from it. Equally, the urge to mate and the pleasure we get from skin-to-skin bodily contact are governed by other, equally powerful, genetically driven, hard-wired imperatives.

The powerful emotions we experience when our fight or flight responses are activated can sometimes be so overwhelming that the rational brain does not have an opportunity to process what is happening and therefore, we are not always able to react to our feelings wisely. For example: most of us will experience road rage at some point in our lives and it is sometimes difficult or impossible to resist the urge to physically or verbally attack other road users.

Even when we are given time and space, and know rationally and consciously that the emotions we are experiencing (and any consequent behaviours) are not appropriate to our current circumstances, we often still struggle to cope with the physical effects of the massive chemical changes that have taken place in our brains and bodies.

Making a good impression

When I first started as an executive coach working with my first big client – an executive board for a FTSE 100 company – I felt very responsible. I had done all the interviews and feedback reports and wanted to make a good impression to both the client and my new boss. When it came to running a workshop with the board of the client, to share the results, I remember wanting the scaffolding that was on our building to fall on me as I left for the meeting so that I wouldn’t have to go! (I’m not alone in having these feelings by the way: four times Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent writes in his autobiography about wishing the minibus taking him to an Olympic final would crash so he wouldn’t have to go through with such a stressful event.)

The degree of importance placed on making a good impression – and the anxiety resulting from that perception – had alerted my emotional brain to do what it always does when we are going into a potentially dangerous situation; I had become tense and breathless, and ready to run like hell.

While my rational mind knew that these emotions were counterproductive, there seemed to be nothing I could do in those early days of my coaching career to stop the overwhelming anxiety I was experiencing. It is likely that you may have experienced similarly disabling emotions when faced with job interviews – or when being asked to give a presentation or talk to peers or colleagues.

How to manage your emotional brain

How then can we manage the conflict between our rational brain and our emotional brain to help us perform to our potential in stressful situations? One answer is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the act of directing one’s attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment. We are encouraged to simply observe our senses, emotions, and thoughts without making any value judgements about their provenance or authenticity. Mindfulness originated within the Buddhist tradition, but has since been validated as a remarkably effective tool for the management of emotions, pain, and maladaptive thought processes.

Observe your feelings

Simply noticing that you are anxious or angry, for example, observing your feelings with curiosity and compassion, can diminish the power of anger or anxiety to influence your behaviour. Practising mindfulness is not easy but regular use can lead to improvements in both physical and mental health and can give us a great deal of insight into how our feelings may adversely impact on our behaviours.

It can be helpful for you to ask yourself several times during your waking hours, “what is my relationship to the present moment?” When reading a newspaper or watching TV for example, try recognising when your ‘threat buttons’ are being pressed, by whom and for what purpose. Stories that provoke us to experience fear, anxiety and anger sell newspapers and make broadcasts more memorable which is why earthquakes, plane crashes, bridge collapses, and terrorism make the headlines, while good news is relegated to an inner page or the closing few lines of a news broadcast.

Perform better in stressful situations

Mindfulness is where the rational and emotional mind overlap – it is where we are when we are wise, observing, and non-judgmentally contextualising our emotional responses with rational thought. For leaders of businesses in a VUCCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, chaotic and ambiguous) world, it can be a critical skill in helping to carve out quality time to ‘think’ and access true feelings. Consequently, mindfulness rests at the heart of delivering the modern, emerging style of leadership that allows leaders to have the confidence to stay in the question longer without rushing to make decisions when more consideration would deliver a better result. And, at the very least, it’s better than wishing the sky would fall in on your head!