By: Michele Mariscal, PhD, NWI Membership Committee
One of the opportunities for individuals and organizations at this time in COVID is growth in emotional intelligence. Our culture is all about “stay strong” and “just stay busy”, and the illusion that we can pass through difficult emotions. There is research that helps us understand why it is helpful to name what we are feeling, rather than passing over challenging emotions.
Our bodies are tracking all of the emotional signals we are experiencing, which impacts nervous system activity and hormonal activity. What happens in passing over difficult emotions, is an increased tendency to react and explode in the buildup like a pressure cooker. Or, as many mental health professionals are seeing, an increase in depression and depressive moods.
One of the exercises that I do when I facilitate The Resilience Advantage from the Institute of HeartMath® is called Emotional Landscape. In this exercise, participants name emotions that occur in four different quadrants, related to the intensity of that emotion and effects on nervous and hormonal systems. This is often an eye-opening exercise for people when they recognize how much time over a week they are spending in depleting emotional states without actively processing them, or at least being mindful to what is so.
In a study out of UCLA, Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman found that subjects who put feelings into words makes sadness, anger, and pain less intense. When we experience fear and anger, the part of the brain called the amygdala shows increased activity. By naming these feelings and emotions, activity moves from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that inhibits irrational behavior and helps us make better decisions.
Many times during COVID, I found that underneath my anger was fear or worry. I learned this, because I took the time to tune in to my inner world to name what I was currently feeling, and in doing that, allowed the underlying deeper emotion that was driving the anger to surface. And then, on one occasion, the processing of that emotion was to cry. I give you permission to cry as needed these days!
Harvard Business Review recently had an article providing guidance for leaders to understand what to do when their employees cry at work. It is not an “if”, but a “when”. I found this an encouraging sign of growth in Emotional Intelligence and building capacities for empathy and compassion. Most don’t understand that relieving those pressure cooker emotions is what helps normalize neurotransmitters that stabilize mood and sleep. And having a safe place, space, and people to express to is critical at this time. All of us need to listen to our own inner dialogue and be a listening heart for others.
One of the keys to listening in this way, is to do so without offering advice, suggestions, or analysis. Offering advice is a subtle way of dismissing what was just shared. All of us are experiencing loss in some way and this is cause for grief. Grievers don’t need to be fixed; they just need to be heard. So, listen and express acknowledgement in some way, remembering the science that tells us that just having the opportunity to name our feelings shifts the signaling from the amygdala which holds patterns of fear, to the prefrontal cortex in which we are able to move forward into the next moment with a better ability to adapt and make wise choices.