Reclaiming the Driver’s Seat: How to Keep Your Emotions from Hijacking You

Every day, tens of thousands of thoughts run through our brains, and most of them go unchecked – especially the emotional ones. Something happens, our emotions overcome us, and without much critical thought, we react. What role do our feelings play in driving these irrational reactions? Why do emotions have such influence over us? Is there anything we can do to better manage our feelings and stop being so reactive?

In his podcast episode, How Emotions and Feelings Drive You, Dr. Evian Gordon, founder and chief medical officer of Total Brain, sits down with Dr. David Whitehouse, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, and Chris Darwin, psychologist and Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, to unpack these questions. They break down the science behind unchecked emotion and share how to reclaim power over those feelings to practice more conscious thinking.

Reeling in our thoughts and emotions is especially crucial in the workplace, where we encounter so much diversity of ideas and people. A healthy work environment depends on colleagues being driven by conscious decision-making rather than unbridled emotion.

Understanding the lazy brain

To prevent emotions from hijacking us so easily, we first must understand the brain's adaptations. The brain functions in safety-first mode, so it picks up on stress and danger quickly and stores those experiences in our working memory to help us avoid or cope with similar situations in the future.

Unfortunately, this protective predisposition also makes the brain lazy, driving us to unconsciously choose circumstances with familiar problems so that we can more easily defend against hurt and harm. 

For example, as Dr. Whitehouse explains, we tend to choose life partners who may have many of the negative traits that bothered us about others when we were young. Why? Because the brain already knows how to cope with and handle those faults. These familiar cues eventually develop into our biases, a distorted lens that causes us to unconsciously perceive, feel and react in preconditioned ways.

In a setting like a workplace, where multiple individuals bring biases to the table, this can present communication and relationship issues if teammates do not understand how to consciously process emotions and manage reactions. Providing access to a tool like Total Brain’s Self Regulate can help employees sharpen emotional intelligence and improve their capacity to regulate interactions with others. Both of these are crucial to building a collaborative team environment

Emotion as our first language

Prior to the development of language, emotions dictated human behavior exclusively. As language developed, our responses and reactions evolved from being purely emotional to incorporating rational thinking. Effective communication depends on alignment of the two, but many times, the brain fails to properly bridge the gap, leading to misunderstanding.

Dr. Whitehouse reveals that 50 percent of our communication comes from the primary processing of our emotions, with our brain unconsciously filling in the rest of the story with its existing biases. In other words, our brains "want to see what goes on in previous patterns, because it's easier than to think that there could be a multitude of new patterns. It doesn't want to process all the new information," Whitehouse explains.

That tendency can lead us to misinterpret the actions or intentions of others. For instance, if a young child lives in a home filled with conflict and abuse, or grows up in a violent situation like a war, he may develop a hyper-ability to sense and recognize anger.

"Our brain becomes exquisitely good at recognizing that emotion and any tonal voice change, any facial expression change, any gesture change that might hint at anger...with the problem being that in a completely different environment, we would tend for the rest of our lives to over-read neutral moves (as having) the intention of anger, for our own safety," he says.

Achieving mastery over our biases requires us to pause and reflect upon our reactions to emotional cues. Workers can improve their emotional intelligence through exercises like Total Brain’s Bubble Heads. It trains users to recognize more positive cues in their interactions with others and tune in to the positive aspects of the world around them, activating neural networks for safety, reward and happiness.

Alignment through conscious thinking

The alignment of conscious thought and emotion requires both awareness and effort, starting with managing our biases. "Everybody comes with their own vantage point," says Dr. Gordon. "Once you see that alignment is rare, that you've got to work for it, and that you've got to really be open and sharing -- including mistakes -- it changes the dynamic."  

How can we foster an openness that allows for our misalignments to be addressed in healthy ways, especially in a workplace environment? It starts with each person making the effort "...not take it so personally, to be more present and aware of the fact that misalignments are grist for the mill, and just celebrate and have gratitude for when it is aligned and magnify what works," Dr. Gordon says.   

To reclaim our feelings and practice more conscious thinking, Dr. Gordon and team suggest we:

  • Concentrate on tone four times more than on words. Communication is 40 percent tonal and 10 percent verbal. By paying closer attention to how things are said, rather than solely what is being said, we can better regulate our reactions.  
  • Be aware of your internal biases. Examine whether you have a bias towards negativity or positivity. Do you tend to see the negatives in people over the positives? Are you highly sensitive to stressors? Being aware of your biases helps you catch those thoughts and keep emotions in check before they spiral out of control.  
  • Practice reflective listening. Reflective listening involves actively listening to what someone says and then repeating back what you heard him or her say to confirm that you understood. "Doing reflective listening and thinking about options of how to respond can buy you time to engage in conscious thinking, as opposed to emotional thinking," says Darwin.
  • Change behavior in tiny steps. With all the thoughts that race through our heads daily, make it a goal to wrestle just one from spiraling out of control. Track these small wins by writing down each emotional thought you successfully turned into a conscious decision.
  • Note your wins in full detail. This helps your brain register the positive moments and engage in practices that produce the same good feelings. Curating successes will empower you to see life through a more positive lens and live more consciously going forward.

Your workplace, aligned and empowered

Constant unchecked and intense emotions can quickly turn a work environment toxic. Empower your employees with the tools they need to learn their emotional cues, check their biases and listen more actively. The resulting interactions across your teams will be more productive, positive and intentional. For more information on this topic, download our ebook: Navigating Negativity: How Emotions Influence Mental Health.

Total Brain provides self-assessments and brain training exercises to help support your team members as they work on consciously managing their emotions. These self-monitoring and self-care tools also provide critical team analytics for your organization, from corporate mental health risk to ROI of improved employee mental health.

Want to see our platform in action at your organization? Request a demo today to see how Total Brain can help you build the healthy, collaborative company culture that drives success.

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