Humans are equipped with highly developed internal alarm systems that serve a purpose. To protect us. Take pain for instance: if we accidentally touched a hot surface, a signal shoots to our brain and causes our hand to instantly pull away, before even having to engage our conscious thought. Our pain system alerts us and motivates an action that protects us from potential harm. This system works so well, in fact, that the more we listen to our pain, the faster it becomes at identifying these threats to our well being (real or imagined).
Our emotions work very similarly. We get instinctual “gut” responses when things happen in our environment. We get happy, sad, mad, etc., based on events that occur. These reactions are critical. They alert us and motivate an action that could protect us from potential harm. They allow us to identify things in our surroundings and make decisions, again for our safety and well being.
The challenge arises when we become overly sensitive to this internal alarm system. This can happen based, on past experiences. Take for example if you’ve ever been stung by a hornet. It’s painful. Our body is going to remember this experience. So, for a period of time after that sting, we tend to over react to any type of flying insect that comes near us, we freak out, even though that “threat” may not be nearly as dangerous to us as the hornet was.
There is extensive research done on this area of pain science. If we are unable to challenge our conscious assumptions and beliefs, over time, these neurons become so sensitized that they will elicit a pain response at the mere thought of a fly. And why wouldn’t they? For all our nervous systems knows, the fly is a threat, and we require protection from it.
This type of response can happen with our emotions, especially when stakes are high. If we have lived through past experiences that have been legitimate threats to our ability to perform, a pattern can emerge and we start to get overly sensitized to these stimuli (a co-worker’s comment, a change in deadline, a boss’s feedback, etc.).
We know that these “gut” reactions are important for us as humans, but it’s also important for us to use our rationale mind to determine if what we’re feeling is justified or not. Am I over-reacting, under-reacting or appropriately reacting? We have the ability to use our mind and to determine if these feelings warrant a protective response.
The recommendation is to take these reactions as a cue. If something happens and it makes you angry, stressed, shocked or emotional in any way, that is a just a signal from your internal system. Now we have to decide what we are going to do with it. When there’s a cue, there’s a choice. The first option is to try and control our emotions, suppress the feeling, but that is very hard to do and can have long term consequences. Another option, is to think about how we are feeling. Is this a justified feeling, does it require immediate action, is this something that we knew was going to happen.
When we get good at this, we can start to prepare ourselves for these moments.
In sports, for example, when the home team during a game makes a big play, we know that this is going to ignite the crowd and create momentum. The visiting team can prepare themselves for this moment, because they know at some point or another it is going to happen. So, when it does, and we feel anxious, excited, scared, worried, overwhelmed, etc. take it as a cue. When there’s a cue, there’s a choice. Do you allow those feelings to dictate your next actions? Or do you recognize this cue and take the opportunity to refocus, examine the reality of the game, calm your nervous system. Take the air out of the ball, so to speak. Slow it down, sharpen your focus, and understand that it can feel much worse than it actually is.
The amount of weight we give to our cues can significantly impact performance.
If we put some intention behind it, we can determine certain times that emotions are going to run a little higher than other times. Instead of trying controlling how we are going to feel in those moments (because again, that is extremely difficult), we can try and shift our focus towards how we want to behave in those moments, and use the energy of that emotion to fuel that action.
When there’s a cue, there’s a choice.