Monday, August 12, 2013

Controlling Feelings and Emotional Contagion


In my last blog I talked about emotional contagion: an awful infection where the mood of a person can rub off on other people and create either a positive or, sadly, a negative atmosphere. This happens quite out of our awareness, like a lot of things that affect us, and it may be that sometimes we never quite understand why we feel particularly euphoric, good, grumpy or just plain bad. I think that managers/leaders are in a position to exert a very powerful influence on the mood in their organisation. In fact, the capacity to be aware of one’s mood and then to regulate it has been shown in some interesting research by Martyn Newman to be a necessary feature of good leadership. It can be taken that the obverse is true.

So, I did promise in that blog to mention how one might control one’s mood. The ability to regulate feelings is a common feature of clinical work and with elite sports people. Both these groups of people have an interest in being in control: the former because they want to feel better and the latter because they want to perform at an optimum level. Perhaps there’s no real different in the goals of either group. I’ve used this technique for anger management, anxiety control, getting over being grumpy and controlling those out of control moments.

The key to controlling one’s feelings, as I’ve mentioned before, is being aware of how one is feeling at the time. Taken from the Buddhist notion of being in the moment, this ability as become known as mindfulness. Most of us, for most of the time, are on automatic pilot, controlled by our unconscious mind as we rush hither and thither trying not to feel totally overloaded. Our conscious mind has a limited capacity or RAM (for the computer minded) and it can get overwhelmed if we try to pay attention to too much at a time. To prevent the cup running over our unconscious mind takes control.

The problem with this, and we’ve all seen it, is the snappy remark, curtness, withdrawal, the snarl, even a dressing down. Some people start talking more, almost hypomanic, and seem to be on a high. Others just disappear behind their desk and headsets. After such an event recovery of trust and respect can be very difficult. Auto pilots are sometimes very naughty people.

Mindful people are aware of what they are feeling and, to a certain degree, thinking. If you are good at it then you are really tuning into this moment, not the last ten mins or yesterday, not tomorrow or what you are going to have for lunch, but right now. Really mindful people really pay attention to what others are saying, they focus, rather than thinking about what it is that they are going to say. They know how to listen.

I once met a man who was to become Prime Minister of Australia. He had tremendous charisma and most of it came about because he really paid attention and I felt as if I was really important to him when we shook hands and exchanged information. After an hour long meeting with 20 people he was able to remember everyone’s name and summarised our discussion-no notes taken at all. Maybe an eidetic memory helped but he was certainly engaged.

The ability to control emotions then, and therefore resist emotional contagion, is to be aware of changes to your emotional state. The next trick is to pull yourself up. One way of doing this is to say ‘STOP’ in your mind. Then have a brief conversation with yourself. It can be along the lines of, ‘I don’t need to feel like this. It won’t help in the end and it is better if I am in control of my emotions.’ Or, ‘I need to stay calm right now and not get carried away’. Sometimes, with anxious feelings, it is enough to simply say, ‘OK, I’m anxious right now but I don’t have to let it stop me doing what I need to do. I’ll just ignore it and carry on’. You can make your own scripts up but they need to be positive and not self-deprecating.

It is helpful to learn a quick relaxation trick to help with the next bit, although it is not essential. Learning to breathe with your diaphragm is a neat technique to relax or gain control. Find a small round (if possible) rock in your garden and put it in the freezer. When it is nice and cold find a quiet place, lay down, pull up your shirt and place the rock directly on your belly button. It will focus your attention. Then practice breathing in by pushing the rock upwards with your tummy and then breathing out slowly. Don’t breathe with your chest-just your tummy. Breathe normally, not deeply, and breathe once every 5 or 6 seconds-you can time yourself if you like.

Make sure you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Nasal breathing appears to release chemicals that relax us if we do it for around five- mins or more. If you practice this for about ten-mins you’ll find yourself pretty efficient at diaphragmatic breathing. I learnt to do this when I was in my late twenties and it has been a powerful way of controlling my feelings, particularly anxiety.

Then, when you have had a talk to yourself, as above, you can then just breathe with your diaphragm. Nice and slow, nice and easy.

The last little trick is to congratulate yourself when you have been able to bring your feelings under control.

Like most things, practice makes perfect.


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