Learning to control your emotional switch

You’re driving to work and out of nowhere a car cuts into your lane. You quickly swerve to miss the car. Once you’re safe, you feel an emotional charge, and a bunch of thoughts race through your head.
Your first thought – and the most alarming – is to ram the car that cut you off. But your mind quickly dismisses that idea, along with a few other creative but unproductive thoughts. You end up giving the driver the evil eye and shake your head in disapproval.
This micro skill explores the switch that connects our cognitive, logical brain to our emotional brain. We benefit by being in touch with our emotions. However, when we get overloaded and stuck in our emotions, we may engage in behaviours that aren’t in our long-term best interest.
Awareness
Most of us know what unwanted stress feels like. Unwanted stress can be defined as the difference between what we have and what we want. If we can’t solve a problem that’s causing unwanted stress, a switch flips to move us from trying to solve the problem to focusing on managing those emotions and exploring alternatives that we believe can help us feel better. When this switch flips to emotional coping, often our problem solving and decision making are negatively impacted.
We may tell ourselves that to feel better we need to snack on potato chips or perhaps have an alcoholic drink. These behaviours are an attempt to feel better but do nothing to solve our problem. The frequency, duration and intensity that we engage in these kinds of detrimental feel-good behaviours defines our risk for negatively impacting our quality of life.
The first step to learning to manage this switch is to become aware of it.
Accountability
The car scenario provides an example of the switch flipping from cognitive to emotional. The faster we learn how to engage the cognitive brain, the faster we’ll flip back to better decision making that can help us take charge and focus on solving our problem.
Most of us can relate this driving story, where we became upset but our cognitive brain stopped us from doing something we would regret. Sadly, there are cases of road rage where a person’s switch flipped and before they regained control of their thoughts they acted on their irrational thinking and hurt someone.
We’re all responsible for our behaviour, regardless if our switch flips. No one is going to get away with ramming another car because they were cut off.
Accepting that under stress our switch may flip to emotional coping is important, as well as learning that our brain can create irrational thinking when the switch flips. In the end, we have a choice whether to act on our thinking.
We need to learn and accept that no matter how emotionally upset we are, we always own our behaviour, and there are things we can learn to do to help us flip our switch back to cognitive coping.
Action
Here are actions you can practice in order to flip your switch to your cognitive brain faster:
Examine your emotional coping habits – Life happens, and emotions are important and helpful for making good decisions, like having empathy for another person, that can influence behaviour. When we get caught up in emotional coping and feel stuck, our primary motivation often is to feel good, resulting in ineffective coping habits (such as snacking when not hungry) that when repeated on a regular basis can have a negative impact on our health.
Self-evaluate and determine if you have any less-effective emotional coping habits that can become a trigger to act. Instead of snacking, activate a stay-safe plan, such as calling a friend who’s always there for you. A conversation with them may help get you out your emotions and think about alternatives that can help you feel that you’re taking steps to solve your problem.
Challenge self-deception – Your emotional coping brain can be tricky and provide rationale for why you need to eat a bag of chips in the moment. To reduce the impact of emotional flips it can be beneficial to realize that when caught in emotions it’s normal to feel strong urges to engage in feel-good behaviours that we can learn to reject. We can learn that when we get caught in emotional coping we can engage in healthier behaviours such as going for a walk, spending time with a pet or calling a friend. Having planned emotional alternatives provides safe time for our cognitive brain to catch up to our emotions. By being honest and not judging ourselves as being weak or bad can position us to develop the skills to stop or reduce the negative impact of emotional coping.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, and former chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell.