Thanks to the exciting research being done in the field of neuroscience we now know that our brain’s capacity to learn and change in response to new information is much more dynamic than we ever believed possible; we can grow our intelligence in the most surprising ways, even into the later stages of life.
The same can also be said for our emotional intelligence. We can learn new, more resourceful emotional responses and like any other new skill, initially this takes conscious awareness and practice but over time a calm, measured response can be just as automatic as a hasty, emotional reaction might once have been. Here is a little story to illustrate the point.
Once there lived an old man who kept all kinds of different wild animals but his grandson was particularly intrigued by two tigers that lived together in the same cage. The tigers had very different temperaments; one was calm and self-controlled, the other unpredictable, aggressive, violent, and vicious.
“Do they ever fight, grandfather?” asked the boy.
“Occasionally, yes they do,” admitted the old man.
“And which one wins?”
“Well, that depends on which one I feed the most.”
Being able to control your emotions depends in part on how much you ‘feed’ a particular emotion; on how much you focus on what you are afraid of, enraged by, or depressed about. But it’s more than that. Good ’emotional intelligence’ requires that we understand our own moods, recognising when and why we are upset and having strategies in place that enable us to influence the way we feel.
So if you ever find yourself tossed around helplessly on a tumultuous sea of emotion and want ways to at least adjust your sails, the better to steer your own course toward calmer waters, this is for you.
1) Control your emotions by looking ahead
Your anger, depression, spite, or despair, so seemingly real and important right now, where will they have gone in a month, a week, or even a moment?
Very intense emotions blind us to the future and deceive us into thinking that now is all that matters. In fact, when we are incredibly angry or anxious, we can momentarily forget that there is even going to be a future.
This brings to mind someone who was so enraged he pushed an ice cream cone into his boss’s face. This momentary, out of control action had serious and long-lasting consequences on the man’s career prospects.
We’ve all said or done things we later regret simply because, for a time, we let ourselves be dictated by our emotions.
If you get angry, think to yourself: “How will I feel tomorrow if I lose my dignity and tell this person, someone I have to see everyday, what I’m thinking of them right now?.”
If you are anxious about some imminent event, ask yourself: “How am I going to feel tomorrow or next week when I look back at this?” Look beyond the immediate and you’ll see the bigger picture and calm down.
However if you find you are easily triggered and have no control over your reactions, you may be suffering from the effects of undiagnosed and unresolved trauma. In this case it is advisable to seek expert help. Find out more about the symptoms of unresolved trauma and for an effective and comfortable approach to resolving trauma.
2) Get to know yourself
We can get very good at pretending to ourselves.
“No, I’m really pleased for you! No, I really am!” (said between clenched jaws)
Learn to observe your own attitudes and emotional ebbs and flows; one key first step to emotional balance is to know when you are over reacting and why.
If you catch yourself feeling strongly about something, first take a moment to simply notice and then you can be curious about what is it in you that is reacting in this way.
Controlling your emotions isn’t about pretending they are not there. If you feel jealous, angry, sad, bitter, or greedy, label exactly how you are feeling in your own mind: “Okay, I may not like that I’m feeling this way, but I’m sensing something in me that is feeling very envious!” Now you’ve admitted it to yourself.
The next step is to identify why you feel the way you do; you might be surprised at what comes, “I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling envious of Bob because he’s just been rewarded for his work and I haven’t!”
Being able to exercise this self honesty means you don’t have to resort to rationalising’. We rationalise when we pretend to ourselves that we are angry with someone not because they got the promotion and we didn’t, but because of ‘their attitude towards us’ or some other invented reason. Naming the emotion you are feeling and being honest enough to identify the truth of it means you’re much closer to doing something constructive about it.
Find out more about how to connect with yourself.
3) Change your mood; do something different
We tend to assume that moods just ‘happen to us’ and, like storms, the best we can do is wait until they pass. But, unlike climatic storms, we can influence, even change our moods without having to resort to external means such as alcohol or drugs, or other unhealthy diversions. Being able to manage and influence your own emotions is a powerful marker for good health, emotional maturity, and happiness.
One way to alter your mood is to instantly do something else. For example, if you feel flat and bored, continuing to watch uninteresting TV will deepen the mood. Switching it off and going for a walk in a new surroundings will inevitably change your mood. If you feel cross, consciously focus on three things in your life for which you can feel grateful. If you are anxious, start to imagine what you are anxious about has already happened and the result was much better than you expected.
The important thing is think or act differently. You don’t have to allow yourself to be passively carried along by the current of the mood. One effective way to change your mood is to imagine not feeling the way you are feeling.
For example, if you’re feeling really annoyed, you can close your eyes and take a few moments to strongly imagine feeling relaxed and comfortable and even in a good mood. It can help to remember a time and place when you were actually having that positive experience. Recall where you were, what you were doing, any sounds, smells or colours associated with that time and place. The more intensely you can evoke that feeling from the past, the more easily you will be able to move into the positive feeling in the now. This works because the brain doesn’t discriminate between a remembered an imagined event. You can learn to use the power of your own creative imagination to change the way you feel.
4) Observe how others deal effectively with their emotions
How do other ’emotionally skilled’ people deal with their frustrations and difficulties? We can learn so much from other people, as long as we look to the right people to learn from. You could even ask them: “How do you keep so cool when you’re presenting to all these people? Why doesn’t that make you angry? How do you keep smiling after such setbacks?” Their answers could actually change your life if you start to apply what you learn.
5) Change your physiology
Some people assume that emotions are ‘all in your head’, whereas emotions are physical responses. Anger pushes up heart rate and blood pressure, which is why being habitually angry is a predictor of heart disease. Anxiety produces many physical changes and depression suppresses the immune system. Find out more about the physiological changes of anxiety.
So part of changing your emotional state involves dealing directly with the physical changes. Physical changes are led by the way we breathe. For instance, anger and anxiety can only ‘work’ if we are breathing quickly with shallow breaths. So take time to:
6) Use your thinking brain
Think of emotion as a strong but misinformed being that sometimes needs your guidance and direction. We need some emotion to motivate us, but it has to be the right emotion at the right time, applied in the right way. It is often the case that the more emotional we become, the less intelligent we are. This is because emotions tend to make us react blindly and physically rather than to respond objectively and rationally.
Taking the time to rationally assess the situation and plan a response if you’re being attacked by a lion wouldn’t make much sense from an evolutionary point of view. It would have slowed down responses and most likely provided the lion with a meal. However to thrive in this hectic modern world we do much better with a calm centred approach rather than unconscious emotional responses.
If you force the thinking part of your brain to work when you start to feel emotional, you can dilute and subdue the rampaging emotional part. Try these simple exercises, make yourself remember the names of three people you went to school with or even run through the alphabet in your head. So the next time you feel a surge of emotion that threatens to hijack your responses, remember you can do something about it; you can be pleasantly surprised at how just how well it works.
7) Create spare capacity in your life
We experience counter productive emotions for many different reasons. Maybe we have never learnt to control ourselves or perhaps we are living in such a way that makes it more likely we’ll experience emotional problems.
Every organism, from amoeba to antelope and from bluebell flower to blue whale has needs, and so do you. If these needs aren’t met, the organism will suffer. You have basic needs for food, sleep, shelter, and water and but you have emotional needs that are just as important for your well being.
To be emotionally healthy, you need to:
When these needs are being adequately met, we can feel our life has meaning and purpose. Whereas not meeting basic needs leaves us feeling that life is pointless and meaningless and that makes us vulnerable to emotional problems.
When you live in a way that meets your emotional needs you can enjoy greater emotional stability and control. And knowing what you need in life is the first step to creating ‘spare capacity’ to focus beyond your emotions. You can see how not meeting the need for feeling secure or getting enough attention or feeling connected to people around you could lead to emotional problems. Take some time to reflect on how well your needs are being met and if you see any gaps ask yourself, “What changes can I make?”
Remember the tiger. The one you feed the most is the strongest!