Emotional agility is a powerful tool. It can help us adapt quickly to challenging circumstances and refocus on stressful days. Emotional agility can also help us unhook ourselves from destructive patterns of behaviour, creating more resourceful ways of showing up at work so that we can steer ourselves towards a more resilient and rewarding future.
One of the things I’ve learned about emotional agility is that it isn’t about ignoring thoughts and emotions, nor is all about delving deeply into their origins. It’s about noticing their existence, holding them lightly while recognizing there may be something we can learn from the experience without getting stuck there. One of the ways to do this is by understanding a little about how the brain and body work.
Here are 5 interesting facts about the brain which might help us become more emotionally agile in stressful times.
1. The brain is not the command and control centre of the body
In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes was largely responsible for spearheading the theory of a ‘dualistic mind. Essentially, Descartes made the decision to break with the classical /medieval conceptions of mind and body as a unified ‘whole’ by dividing them into two separate spheres. The body, he believed, belonged to science and the mind belonged to metaphysics. Over the centuries, his theories developed firm roots in western society and underpin most of our rational, scientific models of education and thought.
Modern medicine and Neuroscience are now dispelling these theories by reconnecting what Descartes put asunder. Together they are coming to the conclusion that the brain and body are not distinct and separate from each other but actually function together. This research is leading us to recognize that the brain is not, as we once thought, the central command and control centre of the body but more of a logistics warehouse which is part of an intricate network of ongoing 24/7 communication. Scientific Journals, like this one, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1828879/, help us to recognize the interconnectedness of the human being and how each part of the body functions systematically.
2. The body sends 80% more signals to the brain than the brain does to the body –
The largest cranial nerve in our body is called the vagus nerve, or the wandering nerve to use its Latin roots. The vagus nerve is a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibres which links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut as well as to almost every other organ in the body. The body uses the vagus nerve like a superhighway to tell the brain what’s going on particularly when it comes to the managing and processing of emotions. The nerve is configured so that 80% of the nerve fibres – or 4 of its 5 lanes – drive information from the body, (particularly the heart and the gut), to the brain, and not the other way around. Only 1 out of 5 of the nerve fibres sends information from the brain to the body.
The vagus nerve plays a critical role in emotional agility by helping us relax when we are under pressure. A simple breathing exercise for calming both the nervous system, and the overworked mind, is a ‘timed breath’ where the exhale is longer than the inhale. When your exhale is only a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response, and turn down your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight/flight or stress response
3. Emotions are streams of physiological data
When we are under pressure, it’s easy to confuse the emotions we’re experiencing, like anger, anxiety, and self-doubt with ‘who we believe we are’. When we experience overwhelming emotions, it’s not always easy to stand back and take an objective, detached view. Neuroscientist, Dr. Alan Watkins in his book Coherence sheds some of the confusion around this dilemma, by inviting us to simply view emotions as streams of data – habitual communications that are taking place in the mind-body system all the time.
Consider this. While you are reading this article and sipping on your double expresso and scoffing a donut, thousands of pieces of information, in the form of electrical waves, electromagnetic, chemical and pressure signals are whizzing through your mind-body network telling your body how to respond to the words on the page coupled with the sugar rush and caffeine high your body is experiencing. By taking a systemic view, we cannot divorce what is going on in our body from our behaviour. So whether we are aware of it or not, what’s going on in our physiology is having an impact on how we think, what we think, how we feel and how we interpret information. Every emotion has an energetic signature. In anxiety, for example, the gut is churning, the mind is racing, the palms are sweaty, the breath is shallow, and the heart is beating fast. We call it anxiety, but it’s simply streams of data coming from different parts of the body telling it how to respond to an event or situation. Emotions can be thought of as simply, energy in motion.
Being emotionally agile is directly linked to our capacity to be aware of this communication within the body while separating out the feelings, thoughts, interpretations, and stories we might have as a result.
4. The pre-frontal cortex doesn’t function optimally when we are under pressure.
Operating in high pressured or stressful situations, particularly for long periods of time changes the chemistry and communication in our brain and body closing off, or even shrinking, the parts of our brain that are used for decision making, creativity, and goal setting. Instead, other parts of our brain and nervous system jump into action, often seconds before we’re consciously aware, which activate the body’s Fight / Flight / Freeze stress response.
Even though what we’re experiencing might not be a life or death situation, we haven’t yet reached the point in our human evolution where the brain and body recognize it. This is why we can find ourselves ‘losing it’ in traffic or going completely blank during an important presentation. Worse still, our neocortex doesn’t come back online until way after the perceived stress is over, meaning that we can be acting completely out of character and not realize it until it’s too late. Stress literally makes us stupid.
Neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel, in his book, Aware, calls this “flipping your lid.” Your “lid,” being the neocortex, is no longer keeping the amygdala–your “boiling pot”–connected. Many of our most unfortunate experiences in relationships happen when we do things with a “flipped lid.”
5. When your amygdala is active, you cannot have empathy for others
Increasingly, as we endeavour to navigate the complexities of our post-modern world, skills like empathy, collaboration, collective problem solving, and diversity are critical in moving our lives and projects forward.
Daniel Goleman, in his seminal work, Emotional Intelligence (1995) has helped us tune into the workings of the amygdala: an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. The amygdala is part of the limbic system which is often referred to as the emotional centre of our brain.
When we feel relaxed and alert after a good night’s sleep, for example, our amygdala’s activity is more balanced and aligned with that of the neocortex – the logical, rational thinking part of our brain. However as soon as we get into the office and our boss tells us how lousy our proposal to the client was yesterday, our amygdala flares up, closing down the neural pathway to the neocortex. Without the wisdom of this executive function in our brain, we can easily become disoriented during a pressured conversation. The amygdala closes down our capacity to see the bigger picture, step into another’s shoes, and engage in a different perspective. As a result, we can quickly find ourselves trapped in a one-sided point of view: One which allows us to remain in control and stay safe. This is normally a defensive stance, one of “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we might ordinarily be willing to take on a different viewpoint. ‘
Cultivating emotional agility is a powerful skill for our modern times. It’s not a skill we can necessarily master overnight but it begins by understanding the workings of the human brain and nervous system.
New insights in the field of leadership development have given rise to powerful methodologies and distinctions for rewiring the neural networks in the mind-body system by working with and through the body. Getting to grip with these insights can help us short-cut the body’s automatic stress response by re-training the brain and nervous system to operate more resourcefully. Spending a little time mastering these skills can give high performing executives the advantage by enabling them to access their A-game more often.
Next time you feel stressed out or anxious, stop for a moment and think about these five facts mentioned here. They just might help you recognise what’s actually going on so that you can handle the situation a little better.