Emotions getting the better of us?

Can what happens in our brain affect how we engage conflict? 

Why do I overreact about the little things?

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child,

 I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, 

I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 3:11

Emotional learning theory can help answer these and related questions. If you want to master negative emotions, you have to not only understand emotions but you need to allow them into the room.. Emotional intelligence has been around for a long time but it was modernized and made popular by Daniel Goleman. In 1995 he published his work in a book called Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ.  Since then, there has been increasing interest in developing EI skills in the workplace, schools, government offices, prisons, and individual life. 

In 2015, I was certified as a Relational Wisdom ™(RW) Trainer, a program that takes EI theory and combines it with biblical wisdom. It was a great investment of my time and money, and I have incorporated it into my own life, as well as into my coaching practice.

The tools I learned from RW kept me from leading with emotions saving me from responding childishly many times, and has helped me to communicate with purpose, making my marriage and other relationships much more meaningful.  

Gaining control of negative emotions (having emotions work for you rather than you working for them) is key in calming challenging interaction with others. Understanding how the amygdala works will help us to train our brain to be on the lookout for situations that get out-of-control. 

In His book, The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. describes the amygdala as the emotional part of the brain. It is also the first stop where we begin to process information. Van Der Kolk calls it the “smoke detector” alerting us to potential dangers. 

Have you ever had so many thoughts and emotions locked up in your brain, and you knew it was just a matter of time before something triggers them to all come gushing out all at once? 

When triggered, the amygdala is the first part of our brain to react, it releases adrenaline and cortisol which can lead us to do and say things we regret. If you ever experienced rapid heart rate, increased respiration, or a sharp pain in the pit of your stomach you understand how these stress hormones affect the body. They are responsible for our fight and flight responses and if left unattended, the amygdala will block the rational part of our brain from responding and our actions will look out of control. 

The trick is that when you notice these “symptoms” you can train yourself to be aware that your amygdala is processing something. As you put your awareness toward the symptoms, you can then begin to take control of potential negative affects the amygdala will have on your emotions. 

When emotions run exceptionally hot, the amygdala is working on overdrive, which is referred to as an amygdala hijacking. During a hijacking we look out-of-control, irrational, or down right scary. It is difficult to hear rational thoughts from others, and that is where conflict can get destructive and have long lasting detrimental effects. 

I am sure that if you have never heard of this before, you are thinking, “so that is what’s going on in my boss when he yells, or that explains why your spouse can’t, at times, engage in a rational discussion. Teens seem to be constantly hijacked, which can really affect how the family interacts with them. 

Now that we know a little about how emotions can get out of control, let’s begin to understand how to control them.

First, practice mindfulness

You may have heard of this before, it is the practice of being present and noticing what is going on around you. For example, when you notice your stomach burning or getting in knots, or you experience rapid heart rate, or a lump in your throat, that is your cue to take notice and ask what am I experiencing that will lead me to react poorly?

The moment you notice physically what is happening, you can take countermeasures to free your brain. Simply, deep controlled breathing accomplishes this. As you breathe, you not only relax your body but you are allowing information to travel from the emotional part of your brain, the amygdala, to the rational part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. This alone helps the brain to relax and engage conflict more rationally.

Second, let go of assumptions

As we begin to relax and allow our rational thinking to take over, we can also begin to let go of assumptions. This is a big topic for another day, but essentially, we need to be honest and look at what lies we believe. When our emotions are triggered, our thoughts can be confused about what is true. 

I suggest that you practice replacing thoughts that cause anger, fear, mistrust, or sadness with truths. The truth is that our spouse truly does love us. The truth is that our boss is under so much pressure that he/she is not the best at staying positive. The truth is that our children’s brains aren’t fully formed until the age of 25 so it is really difficult for them to be rational. The biggest truth is that we are children of God, created to do good works, and to bring glory to Him who made all things. This last truth should be the one truth to help us through everything. 

Finally, remove yourself from the situation

If you are able to notice when the amygdala is hijacking either your own or someone around you, explain that you are unable to make sense of the situation and would like to talk again another time. This sort of statement is easier to make, during a time of peace before emotions start guiding your thoughts. 

If you remove yourself from the situation be sure to take some time to do the second step. Explore what lies you believe and what truths can replace the lies. Then make the effort to go back to the conversation when emotions are low and the rational brain is in control. 

Please pass this post on to someone you think would benefit from understanding what goes on in our brains during conflict. And if you are experiencing prolonged conflict with someone maybe it is time that you begin to look deeply at the root of that conflict. That is what I do best, it is my passion to explore what holds you back from having peace in relationships and create a plan for enjoying them fully.

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