Emotional Intelligence and Mindful Living
Emotions are Learned Responses
Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about emotions and how they may relate to (or limit) the practice of mindful living. Maybe it’s because lately I’ve been running into individuals that seem completely driven by one single emotion—whether it be anger, or insecurity— that they cannot seem to move forward; a vicious cycle in my opinion that feeds on itself, since the more helpless and debilitating that specific emotion becomes, the more they cling to it.
Trying to untangle the complicated yarn which is our emotional reality is no easy feat. One could attempt to compile a neat catalogue of good and bad emotions, as many philosophers (the stoics for example), and more recently motivational speakers have attempted, but to me it sounds like sheer madness.
Then I ran into into this post from one of my favourite blogs: Humanity of New York, and it became clear to me that perhaps I was asking the wrong question.
A seasoned couple sitting on a park bench expounding on the value of equanimity, or mental calmness. I was struck by the profound wisdom of the caption:
“You cannot let yourself get too ‘up’ or too ‘down’ based on your circumstances […] You should not react to the world. You should respond, but not react. A response is an action based on logic. A reaction is an emotional state. Your reaction will not change the world. Your reaction only changes you. Your response will change the world.”
What’s Your Style?
Neuroscience and psychology may provide a useful tool in trying to make sense of emotions, where they come from, and how they connect with other brain functions including instinct and intelligence.
So, about asking the wrong question: What if we were to shift our thinking from the “what” (or identity) to the ”how” (or quality) of emotions? What if instead of looking at categories of emotional states, we were to look at modalities of emotional states?
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identifies six “Emotional Styles" which determine the way we respond (or react) to specific situations. They are:
- Resilience: Simply put, the ability to recover from adversity. It is determined by signals between the frontal cortex and the amygdala
- Outlook: The ability to sustain a positive emotional viewpoint. This is determined the levels of activity in the ventral striatum (key part of the brain integral to our capacity for self-renewal).
- Social Intuition: The ability to interpret social cues. It is shaped by the interplay between the amygdala and fusiform regions.
- Self-Awareness: This one seems like an easy one, but in fact it’s a tricky one. Self-awareness refers to the ability to identify and interpret the physical signals that reflect emotion. Self-awareness is determined by the ability of the insula to interpret signals from the body and organs. Ask yourself, how well are you able to perceive the physical sensations in your body that signal emotions at this very moment?
- Sensitivity to Context: The ability to regulate responses based on context of a specific situation. This is determined in late part by activity in your hippocampus.
- Attention: Sharpness and clarity of focus. This is regulated by the prefrontal cortex.
As I mentioned in Brain-Hacking 101 & Brain-Hacking 102, I believe you can retrain yourself to be more emotionally flexible, more understanding, and even more sensitive (Dexter’s last few seasons come to might …).
More likely than not your “emotional style” is a combination of a couple (or all six) of these modalities. While to a certain extent these emotional styles are in part genetic, or learned at an early age, they can change. One of the things that neurology has been able to ascertain, is that the brain is more flexible than previously thought.
So, here is a DIY primer of sorts:
- Training for Resilience: Just engaging in regular mindful meditation or yoga. Anything that focuses your mind on breathing and the sensations in your body will enhance resilience. “Connecting with your Self is the key to maintaining your equanimity, your peace, your clarity, and your judgment, even in the face of changing circumstances and pressures.”
- Training for Outlook: Something as simple as surrounding yourself with positive affirmation and mementos from happy moments in your life may do the trick. Post them on your fridge, your work station, your bathroom mirror, whatever works. Express gratitude by thanking people, and/or keeping a gratitude journal. Besides, gratitude is good for your health.
- Training for Social Intuition: Become adept at interpreting body language and/or tone of voice and how they relate to different emotional states. To read more on social intuition click here.
- Training for Self-Awareness: Practice toning in to your body and determine how you feel and where those feelings originate. Try to do this in a non-critical, non-judgmental way. Self-awareness shouldn’t make you miserable.
- Training for Sensitivity to Context: Become aware of events, words, or behaviours that trigger disproportionate responses, and consider why that is. If you lose your cool and the sheer mention (or appearance) of a family member, and you feel driven to stuff a napkin frown their throat it is likely that your initial instinct may not be proportionate to the situation. Consciously (and emotionally) distance yourself from that initial impetus, and focus your attention on better ways to cope with this. Think about your behaviour in such situations, meditating and/or breathing deeply until you feel more relaxed, and count to ten before doing anything.
- Training for Attention: Spend ten minutes a day sitting in a quiet room, and focus on one object, refocusing when your attention wanders. If you want to learn more click here.
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