Our Internal Alarm System
Humans are equipped with highly developed internal alarm systems that serve a purpose. To protect us. Take pain, for instance: if we accidentally touch 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 us to 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 overreact 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.
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 the 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 rational minds 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 minds and to determine if these feelings warrant a protective response.
The recommendation is to take these reactions as an emotional cue. If something happens and it makes you angry, stressed, shocked or emotional in any way, that is just a signal from your internal system. Now we have to decide what we are going to do with it. When there’s an emotional cue, there’s a choice. The first option is to try and control our emotions and 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 makes a big play during a game, 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 an emotional cue. When there’s an emotional cue, there’s a choice. Do you allow those feelings to dictate your next actions? Or do you recognize this emotional cue and take the opportunity to refocus, examine the reality of the game, and 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 emotional 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 at other times. Instead of trying to control 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 an emotional cue, there’s a choice.
About the author
Kevin Duffie, Chief Revenue Officer at innerlogic.
Kevin has a Master’s of Education in Leadership from Acadia University. His Master’s degree included Program and Leadership Development for non-profit organizations. Before joining innerlogic as their Chief Revenue Officer, he was a full-time university basketball coach for 14 years. He has led teams representing Nova Scotia nationally and Canada internationally.