Ever notice how emotion can quickly (and easily) take over a situation and derail us. Even the emotional state of others can impact us, especially those in our “in-group.”
What does any of this have to do with steering wheels and driving?
As humans, we are predisposed to live, to survive. In order to do that, the brain has evolved in such a way that when (real or perceived) threats are detected, it gets our brain’s attention. Easily and quickly. And when it does, it engages our limbic system. The limbic system is a powerful and primeval brain region (heavily linked to emotion, memory and learning) and it quickly shifts gears in the brain from a cognitive proactive place, where we are at the wheel, to an unconscious reactive place, where we switch to autopilot mode. It also marshals resources from and prepares the body to fight or flee the (real or perceived) danger.
While this may be great for survival in the face of real dangers, it’s not always an optimal choice in response to perceived dangers. To our brain, however, many “less than significant” threats can seem like life or death situations. And the shifting process happens in milliseconds. If we don’t notice the shift and are not able to control the shift, we are quickly at the mercy of an “emotional” brain (and by emotional, we are referring primarily to a limbic state of mind). This is linked to Evian Gordon’s Brain 1-2-4 Model (see Link 1). The “1” is the brain’s core organizing principle (minimize danger & maximize reward), the “2” is the two primary modes of brain function (conscious and nonconscious or automatic), and the “4” refers to four key brain processes: emotion, feeling, thinking, and self-regulation. Emotion happens at an unconscious level, feeling is the conscious experience of emotion, thinking is our conscious cognitive processing and self-regulation is a way of directing or controlling our consciousness.
So what do we do about this?
As mentioned above, we work with the brain’s ability to change itself by growing our ability to notice and control these shifts. Like it or not, this starts with your mindfulness muscles. For some leaders, the word mindfulness sounds squishy or weak or froo froo. Maybe so. But mindfulness, simply put, means noticing.
While we have this capacity, our brain is easily distracted (looking out for and responding to threats), which is why it is not a strong network. By developing a simple mindfulness practice, you can begin to strengthen this network. A strong mindfulness network has significant positive implications (See Link 2, 3, 4).
But noticing is not enough. We have to DO something about what we notice. We have to control (think self-regulation) the shifting energy in our brain/body. This is where strengthening our brain’s “braking system” comes into play. The braking system is related to the (right) ventrolateral prefrontal cortex or RVLPFC (see Link 5). The braking system is what is activated when we are exercising self-control. Not checking email every 2 minutes, walking by the ice cream store, getting out of bed rather then hitting the snooze button–these all involve our braking system. And when we strengthen our braking system, we can apply our brakes more quickly and stop ourselves from going from a conscious to a nonconscious mode. This allows us to make more informed decisions in the face of emotional situations.
It seems this is ever-more needed in the face of today’s current events. There are a multitude of issues playing out nationally and on the world stage that are emotional powder kegs. Making decisions (can anyone say “creating policy”) from an emotional (limbic) place can be lead to just as scary a place as what triggered the emotion in the first place.
So when emotions start to run high, notice the shift quickly (be mindful), apply your brakes (self-control), and take a more thoughtful approach to keep moving forward.
After all, you–not your brain–have eyes and belong in the driver’s seat.
If you want to learn more about how to achieve these results, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. “Brain 1-2-4 Model,” Evian Gordon
2. “The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders,” Farb, Anderson, Segal
3. “Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention,” Farb, Segal, Anderson
4. “Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness,” Farb et al