Don't freak out! 3 strategies for dealing with strong negative emotions

When was the last time you lost control of your emotions? 

A few weeks back, I had thought I was totally prepared - I had done my research; planned how to handle any objections; made sure my proposal was immaculate.  But as soon as it was my turn to present my pitch to the C-suite members of a prospective corporate client, I lost my cool.  

My heart rate went through the roof, I began to sweat, I choked on my words and I started a negative narrative in my mind along the lines of “OMG, they can totally see that I’m nervous!  This is going terribly.  They’re never going to hire me!”

Though I usually pride myself on being calm and collected, this experience reminded me that I needed a refresh on how to regain control of runaway emotions.  As I debriefed what had happened with my coach, we went over some of the techniques that scientific research has proven to be effective at regulating strong negative emotions.  I’ve laid out what we discussed below in the hopes that this information will help you keep calm under pressure.
 

Brain basics
 

Strong emotions have an effect on our brain’s ability to make decisions, solve problems, and collaborate with others.  Generally, positive emotions (such as happiness, curiosity, excitement) tend to improve the brain’s functioning and negative emotions (such as fear, anger, frustration) tend to reduce it.

In the heat of the moment, there are three main options for dealing with strong negative emotions:

1. Expression: You can choose to express your emotions but this response may not always be appropriate in social and work situations.

2. Suppression: You can choose to keep your feelings bottled up inside you but this has two significant negative impacts:  

  • It impairs your cognitive functioning in the moment and increases your blood pressure.
  • Those around you can sense your discomfort, which causes their blood pressure to rise as well.

3. Cognitive change: Changing your thinking is the most productive way to handle negative emotions as it does not harm cognitive functioning or impact others. [1]
 

Staying calm under pressure
 

So how can you engage in cognitive change to regulate your emotions?  Here are three techniques:

1. Labeling

Though it may seem counterintuitive, tuning into and labeling the negative emotion you are feeling in the moment helps to reduce it. [2]

Neuroscientist David Rock summarizes the scientific research in this area by saying, “Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion. Open up a dialogue about an emotion, though, and you tend to increase it.” [3]

To take advantage of this technique, you might simply say to yourself, “I’m nervous now.”  By engaging the prefrontal cortex area of your brain (the part responsible for your conscious thoughts), you are able to essentially turn on your brain’s emotional braking system and stop the feelings from spiraling out of control.

2. Reappraisal

An even stronger way to put the brakes on negative emotions is to engage in reappraisal, which is essentially viewing the situation from a new, positive perspective. 

In the book Your Brain at Work, David Rock presents a key finding from Kevin Ochsner’s research on reappraisal:

As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.”

What might this look like in practice?  For example, if the audience you are presenting to seems distracted, your negative appraisal of the situation might be that you are doing a bad job. 

A positive reappraisal of the situation could be that this is an opportunity to stretch your public speaking skills.  Or maybe it’s an opportunity to strengthen your connection with the audience by engaging with the individuals more personally. 

Asking yourself “How else could I look at this?” and framing the circumstances in a new, more positive light allows you to shift how you feel about it and may even give you a greater understanding of the situation.

3. Mindfulness

Another way to calm your emotional response is the technique of mindfulness: paying attention to direct, present moment experience. 

Daniel Siegel, the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, has found links between those that have developed mindfulness, such as long-term meditators, and emotional regulation.  The greater the ability one has to be mindful or in the present moment, the more ability one has to regulate her emotions. [4]

Because you use the same neural networks to engage in narration (for example self-talk along the lines of “OMG I can’t believe this is happening!”) as you do to take in sensory information from the environment (for example the temperature of the air, the smells and sounds around you, and the sensation of your feet on the ground), practicing mindfulness can help to block out the negative narrative.


Now I’d love to hear from you.  What techniques have you found to be effective in keeping you calm under pressure?  Please share them with us in the comments below.

[1] Source: Ochsner, K (2008). Staying cool under pressure: insights from social cognitive neuroscience and their implications for self and society, NeuroLeadership Journal Issue One.
[2] Source: Lieberman, M (2009). The brain’s braking system (and how to “use your words” to tap into it), NeuroLeadership Journal Issue Two.
[3] Source: http://www.linkageinc.com/pdfs/disl/Rock_PG.pdf
[4] Source: Siegel, D (2007). Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being, Journal of Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience (2007) December 2 (4): 259-263.