Turns out our moms were right…again.
Remember when you used to throw infantile tantrums or explode in emotional outbursts when you didn’t get your way? Remember when your mom would tell you to calm down and count to 10?
Well, there’s a whole heck of a lot of science behind why this simple activity works to lessen the grip of intense emotions. In fact, that same science tells us that six seconds* will actually do.
Although most of us no longer throw tantrums (no matter how much we might like to), we do have adult versions. Remember the last time someone said something that immediately raised your hackles and your blood pressure and you got defensive? Remember the last time you felt vulnerable and reacted in anger, hurt, or frustration and lashed out? Remember the last time you felt emotionally overwhelmed to the point that you couldn’t talk or engage, and so merely shut down?
Newsflash! Those are all adult tantrums that usually lead to regret, broken relationships, and floundered success because in those moments we unconsciously react to a strong emotional trigger rather than respond from a conscious choice.
Strong emotions carry with them an arbitrary sense of urgency. It is this sense of urgency that often gets us into (rather than out of) trouble because it causes us to react. This reaction occurs when we perceive a threat, sending our limbic brain into fight, flight, or freeze mode because it is designed to protect us from harm. It is not designed to examine the reasonableness or realness of the perceived threat; it is designed to react. Period.
Picture this reaction as a rushing deluge of neurochemicals into the body in the form of hormones like adrenaline. We are physiologically overtaken with the urge to protect ourselves: the more we react, the more we validate the threat, the more hormones flood our system, the more hijacked we get by our amygdala (the specific part of the brain engaged), and the more likely we’re about to do or say something stupid when that threat isn’t real. The strong emotional reaction is often fueled by the stories we’ve built up around that emotion, which over time become our feelings. Our feelings greatly influence our readiness to react (because whatever is currently happening confirms those stories) and the emotion-feeling hamster wheel spins itself into a frenzy. Our feelings also greatly influence our hesitation, unwillingness, or inability to challenge our stories because we often believe they’re linked to our identity, or indeed are our identity.
By pausing and consciously engaging the upper brain in a cognitive, cortical activity like counting to 10, we create a space for those hormones to reabsorb in the body and for the sensation to pass. The willingness to pause indicates an openness to consider an alternative story, a different set of facts, and other options for response and interaction.
None of this is to say that our emotions are bad or not useful for clear thinking. They help us weigh and evaluate decisions, they help us prioritize, they help us set boundaries, and they help us connect and learn. It is very much to say that when they’re expressed or used in a reactionary rather than responsive way, the outcome is often negative or counter to what we may ultimately wish. Our emotions are integral to not separate from our brain and our thinking£.
And therein lies the power (and necessity) of the pause. Developing this skill in coordination with learning to recognize (and hopefully avoid) your emotional triggers, quickly naming the emotion you’re experiencing, and making a conscious choice to tell another story or at least consider other options, you’ve taken the first steps toward emotional intelligence.
This week, I encourage you to consider how you can turn your reactions into responses.
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*The non-profit emotional intelligence organization SixSeconds is dedicated to the power of the pause, and to teaching people about their emotions and how to use them in a productive, healthy way.