Quit crying (part II)


“My boss is an idiot. How can I be happy on a team where my own boss doesn’t even perform to my standards?”

In this brainy two-part series, I explore the neuroscience behind regulating emotions. This second article focuses on three specific, brain-friendly strategies for effective emotional self-regulation:

  • Labeling
  • Reappraisal
  • Expectation management

Part II: What exactly am I feeling? Emotion regulation in practice

Do you recognize yourself in any of the situations below? These are all statements I’ve heard or experienced at some point. Most of them, recently. I’ve heard these or similar exasperated outbursts from clients, friends, family members, and even from myself, as we struggle to keep our cool, keep our focus, keep our happiness, keep our sanity – basically, NOT lose our shit in our daily lives.

“My boss is an idiot. How can I be happy on a team where my own boss doesn’t even perform to my standards?”

“I don’t like myself when I’m around my mom sometimes. She just seems to have a way of bringing out the worst in me.”

“Every year, I am being expected to do more, but my pay hasn’t increased since I started. I’ve constantly had things added to my plate, but nothing has been taken off my plate. I don’t feel recognized or compensated for that extra work.”

“I feel like I’m always getting pulled into BS activities at work, that are a waste of everyone’s time. Why can’t we ever seem to fix these stupid broken processes?”

“Why does my sister always seem to have the ability to push my buttons like this? I don’t act like that around other people.”


Managing Emotion, Mindfully

Stress and anxiety have become ubiquitous today, at work and at home. As technology allows us to connect to more people at more times, and to take in more information than our brains have evolved to be able to handle, many of the clients I work with, struggle with feeling increasingly disconnected, overwhelmed and unable to focus.

Heck, I struggle with it myself! Emotions can get the best of all of us at times, and they can wreak real havoc on our productivity and our relationships, unless we have solid strategies in place for managing them, for harnessing their energy into a productive force for good.

“Emotion is energy in motion.”

– Robert Kiyosaki

In the first post in this two-part series, I wrote about mindfulness as a way of directing attention to the conscious, thinking mind, in order to reduce the intensity of an emotion.

Here, I want to share three specific, brain-friendly strategies for emotional self-regulation, and provide you with some questions you can try on for size, to help yourself and others refocus and reframe their perception of the present moment.

Three affective regulation strategies

We have several strategies for regulating affect (the experience of emotion) at our disposal. Of these, there are both explicit and implicit strategies which can activate regions of the PFC (Sayers, et al, 2015).

The two explicit strategies I want to share with you are called ‘labeling’ and ‘cognitive reappraisal.’ There is also a more implicit strategy that is nonetheless critical: managing your personal expectations.

Practicing these strategies when faced with an emotionally charged situation, and then using questions to help redirect your attention when you begin to experience emotional stress, could prove effective both at work and at home.

Strategy 1: Labeling

One way to make the switch from emotional reactivity to cognitive processing is by naming the emotion.

Giving something a name means assigning a linguistic label to it in the brain. This activates the PFC (the upper “thinking” brain) to seek out and attach a whatever symbol (in this case a specific word) it can find, to the emotion. And, as we discovered in the previous article in this series, when the thinking brain is activated, the amygdala (part of the lower “feeling” brain) becomes less active. 

In other words, to feel less intensely, simply name the feeling. And, the more specific of a name you can find, the better.

It is important to note here, that this does NOT mean dwelling on the emotion, or even talking about it at length, which can cause you to fall right back into the lower brain, getting the amygdala all worked up and before you know it, taking over control of your brain again.

Using mindful attention, all you need to do is simply observe, acknowledge, accept the emotion, and then call it what it is… simply, call a spade a spade.

(See what I did there? I used an idiom, another linguistic device, which had me activate my thinking brain even further to think of the label “idiom.”)

Mindful Questions to Try:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • When X happens, what is the emotion I tend to feel?
  • How can I get even more specific about which emotion I am feeling?

Name each emotion as it comes up. And then, let it pass through you. As it does, let it go.

Strategy 2: Reappraisal

Have you ever had your house reappraised?

When a property we own raises in value, we consider it “good.” When the appraised value falls, it feels “bad,” because we may not be able to sell it for as much money as we had thought.

On the other hand, when a property we might want to buy is appraised lower, we might think of it as “good” because now we might be able to buy it for less money than what we thought initially.

Our brains are really quick to assign value to a situation as “good” or “bad,” or in the brain’s terms, as a “reward” or a “threat.” This is how we humans have survived as a species – we are really good at threat detection, which means we are able to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

In today’s modern society, however, most people aren’t usually faced with life-threatening physical danger in their daily lives. Most of what the brain experiences as a threat is of a psychological nature; an emotional threat. And the brain doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an emotional threat; it responds the same way, flooding our minds with a fight-or-flight response.

Recognizing that we aren’t actually going to die, we have the ability to change how we appraise, or evaluate a situation, and what value we assign to it (how “good” or “bad” it is). We can therefore change how we perceive an experience. When we change the value we assign to a situation, we change our interpretation of its significance – we change its meaning.

This, in turn, influences not only how we feel about the situation itself, but how we actually experience it, even how we remember it in the future, and how it affects us emotionally in the long term.

In his book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, author David Rock outlines four different types of reappraisal strategies: reinterpreting, normalizing, reordering, and repositioning. By looking at a situation in a different way, we change its value content.

Value elicits emotion. Reassess the value of something, and you change your feelings about it.

Mindful Questions to Try:

  • What if I could see this differently – what might that look like?
  • How could I describe this experience using neutral terms?
  • If I could turn this situation into an opportunity, what might it be?

Strategy 3: Expectation Management

“The secret to happiness is lowered expectations.”

-Airrion Andrews

This was the motto of one of my college buddies, and research seems to validate his sentiment.

When something unexpectedly positive happens, we get a reward response in the form of a dopamine hit in the brain. When a similar situation arises a couple of times, we begin to anticipate the reward, and get the dopamine hit at the expectation of the reward, and NOT with the rewarding experience itself.

When expectations are met or exceeded, we get an increase in dopamine, and we feel happier, more focused, motivated and even able to remember better.

When expectations go unmet, we experience a drop in dopamine, which makes us unfocused, unmotivated, and unable to remember well.

By setting goals that are attainable, we increase the chances of meeting or exceeding them. When our expectations are met or exceeded, we get that dopamine increase. If we set goals that are too big, we run the risk of not meeting them, experiencing a corresponding drop in dopamine.

Mindful Questions to Try:

  • What are my expectations going into this situation?
  • How can I adjust my expectation to be a little lower than that?
  • What is realistic to expect from my client / boss / coworker / employee in this situation?

Intelligence Begins with Awareness

From what insight I’ve gathered from personal experience, paired with my NeuroLeadership studies, it seems clear to me that a more mindful approach to life can be an effective emotion regulation strategy in and of itself. It also seems clear that a state of mindful attention, guided by questions, can help us deploy the strategies of labeling, reappraisal and expectation management. This, in turn, helps us live a life of lower reactivity to our own emotional triggers, and lays the foundation for greater responsiveness to the needs of those around us.

Emotional intelligence begins with awareness of our own emotions, and grows in understanding of their impact on other people.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried these strategies for yourself, and how they have worked for you.

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