Intense negative emotions and a sense of urgency often go together. Only natural, right? You're feeling threatened, so you must DO something!
This can be life-saving, if tigers, Neanderthals, or vampires are chasing you. In most cases, however, runnin' with your hair blowin' back is counterproductive. Fortunately, there is a better way.
Intense does not mean urgent
One of the brain-taxing facts of modern life is that fight-or-flight is triggered by non-life-threatening events. You oversleep. Run out of gas. Lose your cell phone. Your spouse forgets your birthday. Inside your head, you're hollering, "This is AWFUL! HORRIBLE! I can't stand this!" Adrenaline flows. Your heart rate, respiratory rate, muscle tension increase. Your body tells you to DO something! For most of us, literally running or fighting are seldom immediate possibilities.
So, you, metaphorically, go runnin' with your hair blowin' back! Rant and rave, swear and shout, fuss and fume. Unfortunately, venting negative emotion does nothing to "burn off" sympathetic nervous system (SNS) hormones. In fact, as all that Type A behavior research in the 1980s concluded, venting (hostility) is detrimental to health and well-being.
Don't react! Respond.
There is an axiom in psychology—Don't react! Respond. Good advice, of course. But how does one go about this?
First, one must decide that stopping actions fueled by negative emotions is a worthy goal. Next, one must utilize the brain's capacity to inhibit negative emotions. Then one must practice, practice, practice.
Threats to self-esteem or peace-of-mind, for example, are non-life-threatening. Nonetheless, negative emotions and a sense of urgency are likely to be triggered. You discover a spouse's affair, see a provocative comment on your facebook page, get a verbal warning from your boss. Adrenaline flows and you feel frantic! You must do something! But what?
My most popular post, Bad Advice: Follow Your Heart, is about taking negative emotions out of decision-making. Comments by a few readers indicate a belief that inhibiting negative emotions is undesirable. Perhaps, you believe that, too. If, however, you've experienced unhappy consequences from runnin' with your hair blowin' back, please read on.
Start by calming yourself. Rather than intensifying emotions—ruminating about how truly AWFUL this situation is—try de-escalating. Take a few deep breaths, release muscle tension, and remind yourself that even though emotions are intense, the sense of urgency is an artifact. In your non-life-threatening reality, slowing down, taking command of negative emotions, and engaging in rational thought will work to your advantage.
Remember the childhood game, Simon Says? Dr. Louis Cozolino points out that, while playing Simon Says, children demonstrate the ability to inhibit first reactions, reflexes, and impulses "when Simon doesn't say."1 Current research shows that inhibition of actions, impulses, and negative emotions takes place in the brain's prefrontal cortex (pfc). If you're interested in learning about neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, search terms such as rostral ACC, orbitomedial pfc, dorsolateral pfc. If you're more the "bottom-line me" type, just know that (absent brain trauma), human brains are fully equipped to accomplish the tasks of inhibiting negative emotions, integrating emotion and higher cognition, and taking command of thought and behavior.
Finally, break old patterns of reacting by practicing restraint. Practice emotional neutrality. Practice choosing rational responses over emotional reactions. Practice shutting down the SNS with relaxation techniques or by "fighting and running" at the gym. And don't stop there! Practice examining your expectations. Practice delaying gratification as a way of increasing self-discipline. Practice imagining yourself in the other person's shoes as a way of increasing empathy. Leave the runnin' with hair blowin' back to others.
1. Louis Cozolino, Ph.D., The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, 2nd edition (NY: Norton, 2010), 120.
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