High-Stress Environments: The Power of Emotional Regulation


Power of Emotional Regulation

From looming deadlines to intricate client negotiations, it can sometimes feel like there’s little room for error or respite. In the face of such demands, what sets the exceptional apart from the ordinary is how you handle stress and pressure. That is, your Emotional Regulation abilities.

It’s the difference between bickering, gossip, and toxicity, as opposed to real power and respect. Individuals such as former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Arden, former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, CEO of General Motors Mary Barra, and CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella, as well as the  most respected people in society generally demonstrate great skill in their self-Emotional Regulation.

Exhibiting poise and resilience with the ability to carry on seemingly calmly even when there is a storm, is a marker of respected leadership and power regardless of your position or title.

It's being able to carry yourself calmly and make calculated decisions which lead to the best possible outcomes even in dire or high stress situations.

The only path to reach this is via Emotional Regulation. And this is the focus of this article.


The Significance of Emotional Regulation


What is it?

Emotional Regulation is the ability to recognise, understand, and manage your own emotions effectively in various situations. In professional environments, emotional regulation holds significant importance, as it enables individuals to maintain composure, make rational decisions, and navigate interpersonal dynamics skilfully.

The Science

Scientific research in psychology and neuroscience suggests a complex interplay among various brain regions, neurotransmitters, and hormones.  Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are known to modulate mood and affect emotional responses.(A. Khan Niazi) Dysregulation of these neurotransmitter systems has been implicated in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Hormones such as cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, play a significant role in the body's response to stress and emotional arousal. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can disrupt emotional regulation processes and contribute to emotional dysregulation.

The Power

When emotions are unchecked or overwhelming, they can impair cognitive function, distort perception, and lead to impulsive or irrational decisions (RJ Davidson, J Kabat-Zinn). That is, when you’re experiencing heightened stress, anxiety, or frustration, your ability to think and weigh your options is hindered. Have you ever had a moment where you are so upset about something, and then when you calm down or enough time passes you realise it wasn’t what you thought?

Immediate emotional impulses usually come off differently to reasoned analysis. Think calm, collected, James Bond, or a graceful yet lethal Ninja versus Donald Duck.



Building Blocks of Emotional Regulation



It may seem obvious, as you see yourself in the mirror every day and are the person you spend the most time with! So surely, you know yourself better than anyone else, right? How aware are you of your emotional cues? That is, your emotional triggers and behavioural patterns.

For example,

What area of the body tenses up the most when you are stressed?

The most common areas are the jaw, neck, shoulders, abdominal muscles, and feet. Simply noticing where you hold your tension gives you the power to release it. Similarly, identifying common stressors or triggers and how your resulting emotions and behaviours pan out are essential to become an ‘Emotional Ninja’.

Another way you can do this is through feedback from trusted individuals and/or therapy or counselling for guidance on your emotional cues and tendencies.


Emotional Recognition

Sounds simple, however accurately identifying exactly how you’re feeling right now at this moment and labelling those emotions, just like a toddler in simple language like happy, sad, angry, frustrated, hungry, excited, etc., is a skill. This enables you to distinguish between different emotional states and understand the underlying reasons for those feelings.


Cognitive Reappraisal

Building on emotional recognition, you can then think about whether it is reasonable for you to feel this way. One way to do this is to simply ask yourself,

‘Are these thoughts really true?’,

‘Are these thoughts helpful to me in this circumstance?’.

Writing the thoughts down as they come and then questioning them in this way provides some distance between you and the thoughts, allowing you to be more objective rather than just wallowing in the emotional response.

Another way is to personify your emotions by giving them comical names. This will also allow you some distance between yourself and your emotions, which means it is easier to disregard them or make them work towards your benefit, rather than being victim of them.


Breathwork and other Physiological Cues

Performing either of the above demonstrates great mental fitness. They are highly effective if implemented prior to emotions spiralling into stronger impulses, that is, when you feel those strong emotions about to happen.

However, if you are already in an emotional whirlwind of fury, fear, gloom, or other strong feeling, your brain’s frontal area, responsible for conscious decision making, is overridden by other areas of your brain responsible for your animalistic survival. In this scenario the most effective emotional regulation techniques involve physical cues and movements.

Noticing your breathing is one strategy. Is it deep, shallow, fast, slow?

Controlling your breath so that you take two short inhales through the nose followed by one long exhale through the mouth, on repeat until you can think again, is a highly effective way to calm your nervous system. It is a similar breath pattern to when someone has just finished sobbing and signals the nervous system to calm down via your vagus nerve.

Water. Whether you have it to drink, or wash your hands or face with it, the sensation and temperature difference of the water can help de-escalate intense emotions.

Going for a walk or jog outside is another excellent way to change the scene that triggered your strong emotions. Efficacy of this is fortified with the physical movement of jogging/walking which releases ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your body and help ease that strong feeling from earlier.


The Verdict

Emotional Regulation is a powerful tool which enables individuals to manage emotions effectively, make sound decisions, cultivate positive relationships, and reach the best possible outcomes. By actively engaging in the practices mentioned in this article, you can gradually enhance your ability to regulate your emotions and eventually become an ‘Emotional Ninja’ who is respected and powerful. Just like a muscle, this takes practice, but with time it's a formidable flex.



Take Action

 1. Notice what area of your body tenses up in stressful, high-stakes situations. Does it ever tense up when the stakes aren't as high? Consciously release it. Yawn, stretch, do whatever you need to do.


2. Label your emotions, simply and exactly as you are feeling them now.


3. Take your own thoughts with a grain of salt. Is every thought you think really true? Is it helpful in this circumstance? Will this/these thoughts bring you the outcomes you want?


4. If you're already off balance and in the thick of a strong emotion, take action. Have some water, go outside, and notice your breath. Is it deep, shallow, fast, slow? Control it so that you take two short inhales through the nose followed by one long exhale through the mouth. Repeat until you can think again. 


'If you are patient in a moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.' - Chinese Proverb.

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