Let me share a bit of Brain 101.
The brain has one overarching organising principle: to minimise threat and maximise reward. It’s a principle that has evolved over thousands of years and is there in service to our brain’s primary goal: survival.
In the modern world, the nature of threats and rewards are quite different from what they would have been thousands of years ago. But our limbic system (that set of brain structures that continually monitors our environment) remains hypervigilant – and incredibly bias towards threat.
(You’ll know from your own experiences how “Away” emotions such as uncertainty, disengagement and pessimism are more easily triggered, felt more intensely, last longer and are harder to recover from; than “Toward” emotions such as interest, engagement and optimism which are harder to induce, aren’t felt as intensely, pass quickly and are easier to slip out of.)
A threat bias is useful for keeping us alive. But at work and in everyday life, it’s not always that helpful. And in fact, can really get in our way.
Not all of us have time to study in-depth the 5 pillars of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). So here are 6 actionable quick-fire strategies you can use to get and stay calm – and keep the thinking going.
- Your physical posture has a hugely significant effect on how we feel. Just check-out Amy Cuddy’s work, starting with her hugely popular TED talk on body language. Or listen to Charlie Brown’s advice: “When you’re depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high, because then you start to feel better … “
- Stand or sit-up straight. Look up. Spread yourself wide. And notice how much easier it is to feel good.
Focus on Your Breathing
- Slow things down, quieten the noise and find some new perspective by focusing on your breathing. Just listen for a moment, and notice the gentle rise and fall of your chest.
- No need to make it a big deal or something you need to leave the office for. Just inhale through your nose for a count of 3; and exhale through your mouth for a count of 3. Do it 3 times for a total count of 18. notice how much calmer you feel and how your breathing has slowed.
- Bring your attention to the (emotional) centre of your body. Not your head. Not your heart. But your gut. A few inches below your navel and halfway between your stomach and your lower back. Consider this your “One Point”.
- Relax and imagine your feet firmly rooted to the ground. Notice how physically centred you feel; and how much calmer.
Project an Energy Bubble
- Imagine you’re cocooned in energy bubble. Give it a colour and a texture. And mute the sounds inside. Imagine the stressful influences of the outside world bouncing off and away.
- Take a moment to enjoy the sanctuary of your personal space, until you’re ready to deal.
Label the Emotion
- I say this all the time, but it’s just so important: give your emotion a name. It’ll dampen your limbic responses and give you opportunity to think anew. And this is super useful at work particularly since we know suppression doesn’t work – and expression is often an option!
- It’s crucially important that the labelling is symbolic. Not a long internal dialogue about what you’re feeling; just a name, in a single word.
Take-in the Peripheries
- If you’re still feeling on edge, find a quiet place to try this exercise. Focus on a point just above eye level. Now, gradually broaden your field of vision until your attention has taken-in on everything in your peripheral vision – whilst still looking straight ahead.
- Now, extend your awareness even further, way beyond your peripheral vision and back behind you, 360° – still whilst still looking straight ahead. When you come back, notice how calm and aware you feel, and how your breathing has slowed.
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence
Research says that emotional intelligence matters twice as much as cognitive abilities for work and career success. And the importance of EQ only deepens the higher you go in the organisation.
So to counter your hypervigilant limbic responses, give yourself more choices and generally be more successful at work, learn to develop your emotional intelligence through thoughtful practise.