I have recently been studying the work of David Rock, “Your Brain at Work” and I love what he says about managing emotions in the workplace! It might be my heightened sensitivity as the symptom of Emotional Lability impacts my life, however I found this to be extremely useful. Now I haven’t quite synthesized this all the way into uses for people with a chronic health issue or a serious health chalenge but the mechanism would be the same.
First it is important to note that we as human beings are threat sensitive, and that’s not a bad thing. We evolved that way- he who deals with the threat 1st lives longer and prospers. The 2nd thing is social threats occur in the brain THE SAME WAY AS A REAL PHYSICAL THREAT. So when someone tells you, “Well it’s not like they had a gun to your head…” You can now say, with certainty, that it felt that way and your brain doesn’t know the difference. If all doctors and Bosses were cognizant of this I assert the world would be a different place. The experience of being threatened shuts down the capacity of our pre-frontal cortext (PFC for short). Our PFC is the gate keeper to higher cognitive functioning, so when it is shut down we have little ability to think, make decisions, our field of view shrinks and we miss things we would other wise see.
When we get reactivated by a strong emotional response, or any emotional response for that matter; we have a choice in how to handle it, but we need to act quickly! We can suppress, express or label or reassess. Suppression is how humans normally handle emotion and we are socialized to do so – especially men. “There’s no crying in baseball!” for example. However supressed emotions have a nasty consequence: memory decreases, the PFC capacity shrinks, problem solving decreases AND the blood pressure of the people around us goes up! Even when they have no idea what happened they can tell when you are suppressing and will be on eggshells about it.
Expressing is great if you are an actor currently on stage, however expressing can wreak havoc in the workplace, get all over others and is “maladaptive” according to David Rock. By maladaptive he means it will get you fired and no one will want to work with you! So what are we left with? The solution seems to be to label the emotion quickly and release it ( catch and release I like to call it!) or, when dealing with a strong emotional hit: reassess or reframe ~ and fast before it becomes your mood! So catching yourself mid-feeling as you are about to go into a tizzy and STOP- label the feeling~ “WOW That made me angry!” and release…this diminishes the impact immediately. Or reassess- or reframe what ever you heard, saw or experienced that caused the emotional reaction be it a traffic jam, a percieved attack on you or whatever. For ex: your boss saying “Hey I want to talk to you about that project later..” isn’t neccessarily a bad thing. Don’t go there. Reframe it: Hey maybe he likes my work and has an idea that will make a difference. When you need to reassess on the fly- use humor. Humor immediately reduces that threat response and gets you back toward reward or happy.
It seems that our facility with reassessing an emotional threat response is a keen indicator of our success in the workplace as well. Our effectiveness/environmental mastery, job satisfaction, optimism and positive relationships are increased as we Reassess versus Suppress. Maximizing our inner processing of information takes exerting some cognitive control of our emotions. We can all be trained to do this.
I have been an avid student of cognitive control for 23 years ever since I read Howard Gardner’s, 7 types of Intelligences in college. I was not very effective at first. In fact it took being knocked off my high horse a few hundred times by life to get real with myself and humble enough to really begin learning. Some of us just have to do it the hard way! Just so you know being in Mensa from the age of 14 doesn’t mean shit~ it’s being willing to apply the brain power that gets you places. At any rate I kept searching and studying~ for the most part I was completely run by my emotions, but I remember the exact moment I got for myself the difference between allowing your emotions to run you and you being able to impact the emotional weather in your life. (Notice I said impact NOT control. Our emotions are vital for survival and any discilpline that shuns them should be run from at top speed! Suppression leads to poor health, and science is proving that as we speak!)
In March of 2002, I was attacked and sexually assaulted. I threw myself into work as an escape while I dealt with the investigation, arrest and trial etc. One thing I dealt with is similar to the symptom of Emotional Lability I deal with now: My emotions would threaten to bubble over and take over the moment. I would be in the middle of a conversation at work and have to put the person on hold while I had a quick cry then collect my self and get on with my job. What I distinguished for myself is that emotions would come and go; my emotional weather would change, but I held the emotions in my hand I was not the victim of them AND that meant I could CHOOSE what emotion to honor at any particular time. When anger and grief were/are overwhelming I can choose JOY. Happiness. LOVE. In the moment I can choose what I honor and experience by calling it what it is and Choosing a distinctly different experience. This is cognitive control: MINDFULNESS and transformation. I got to say how my day would go, and when I exercised that choice, my attacker didnot win – I WON.
Before that experience I had cognitively understood the concept but I had not integrated the direct experience of doing it: intentionally altering my emotional state to better serve myself and those around me. I think this is an important skill for people dealing with a serious health challenge to acquire. It will preserve caretaker relationships, one’s own sanity and give us power when dealing with the impact of any medical decision and with the whole miasma of fear that is palable in almost any interaction with the health care system. David Rock makes a fabulous point about our ability to reframe or reassess emotional reactions~ the more we know about how the brain works the more facility we have with it. So there is a pathway: research , learn about the brain, read and PRACTICE. You are not your thoughts, you have thoughts. Mastering this is an access to Joy in the face of anything.