Fostering Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Resilience: Combining Concepts of Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness
. "Our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold views quite independently of our rational mind." - Daniel Goleman
If we stop and think about it, how often do we stop and think about it? Our cultures puts a premium on staying busy. In fact, it is how most people report dealing with emotional difficulties....by NOT thinking about it. In the moment, this seems like the right thing to do. It allows us to function at work, with family, while driving, etc. This "masking" takes a toll, however, as it requires a great deal of mental energy to keep emotions suppressed. Below are listed some of the common effects:
1. Memory Lapses - Emotions are attached to both long-term and short term memory. A good example of this is to compare an emotionally mundane event like breakfast three weeks ago or the attack on 9/11. One you likely don't remember at all and the other likely carries with it very fine details stored in memory. When denying our emotions we deny the brain the ability to pair the emotions to the memory.
2. Mental Fatigue - The brain is a powerful tool but when stretched can begin to fatigue. By exerting a great deal of mental energy on suppressing the memory attached to the unpleasant emotion we limit the ability for the brain to absorb and attend to new information. This is like a boxer fighting two opponents at the same time.
3. You get less Oxytocin - Oxytocin (not to be confused with Oxycontin) is a hormone released as part of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and is connected to cuddling, laughter, hugs, etc. Unfortunately, when suppressing emotions we often push away those closest to us never giving ourselves a chance for them to help release this hormone.
4. Sleep Deficits - We've all been there, the mind just won't shut off and the result is a night of repeated wakings and light sleep. The next day feels like a hangover and our productivity is hampered at best.....resulting in more stress. When emotions are effectively dealt with the brain can get out of "fight or flight" mode and ready to rest.
5. Elevated Blood Pressure - This again ties into fight or flight response. We feel this surge with unpleasant emotions and is a natural response to perceived threats. This includes channeling blood flow to the muscles to prepare to fight or run away. Increased respiration, heart rate, blood pressure are all common. By not effectively dealing with our emotions, these perceived threats leave us stuck in an extended period of fight or flight which effects several systems in the human body including blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular events.
6. Weight Gain - Eating comfort food elicits a response in the reward center of the brain. The issue is when used as a comfort, we gain weight, by gaining weight we need more comfort. The cycle can result in rapid weight gain.
7. Digestive Problems - The aforementioned fight or flight again. When oxygenated blood flow diverts to the muscles it is simultaneously diverted away from the digestive system (not like we need to worry about digesting a chimichanga when running from a bear). This results in issues like acid reflux, ulcers, indigestion and there are some theories that attribute gastrointestinal cancers to this as well.
These are just a few issues related to suppressing emotions. So....what do we do about it? In order to answer that question we need to first understand some terms. The first we'll review is emotional intelligence. This is simply knowing how you are feeling. Seems silly to think we have to develop this, but because of our busy bee existence we don't often know how we feel or identify this and subsequently that emotion is left to control our day. Fostering emotional intelligence requires willfully focusing on what emotions we are feeling throughout the day and getting more comfortable with this. I often assign clients a check in assignment where they set a reminder on their phone or alarm every two hours and they will write in what emotion(s) they are feeling and what thoughts or events are triggering them.
Emotional resilience is the ability to gain a "tolerance" of our emotions. Instead of exerting so much effort on suppressing our emotions, why not try sitting with them, immersing ourselves in them? Allowing ourselves to FEEL them completely and without judgement.....acknowledging our emotions as just that....emotions. They don't define us nor are they the whole picture of who we are. Over time, the mind begins to dull the effects of the emotions we feel. It's like when you are exposed to the same bad smell over an extended period of time, that smell becomes less severe as the brain adapts. If we don't allow ourselves to feel we never are able to develop this resilience.
Mindfulness, in a very oversimplified explanation, is practicing a present oriented awareness. To beat a dead horse, our culture is one of preoccupation. We are constantly thinking of the next thing we have to get done or prepare for and rarely allow ourselves to enjoy this very moment. Obviously, by practicing a present orientation we are inherently more capable of identifying our emotions in the present moment as well.
Lastly, neuroplasticity is the understanding that we are not "fixed" as human beings and that we are capable of fundamentally changing the way we perceive and interact in our world. We can, through practice and repetition, undo old neural pathways that communicate how to respond to perceived threats and also our emotions. Using the information above, if we routinely practice sitting with and exploring our emotions and not suppressing or hiding them we begin to do this automatically, thus fostering an inherent ability to immediately identify and eventual cope well with our emotions.
Some of the more common tools I have clients utilize are things like journaling, "check-in" assignments, meditation, mindfulness exercises, and many other activities designed to improve emotional intelligence and resilience. I also assist clients in challenging the thoughts they have that contribute to these uncomfortable emotions which could be a whole other blog entry.
Feeling emotions is a part of human nature. Everyone has them, Our emotions drive us to action and are meant to be helpful to us. When they are suppressed they can eventually begin to take away from our enjoyment of our lives. When you catch yourself pushing down your emotions, I challenge you to accept those emotions, immerse yourself in them and begin to see the benefits of working through them instead of hiding from them.
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