Emotional Rescue: mitigating the effects of negative emotions

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - 12:54

By Hamish Williams

We all get out of the wrong side of bed some days. Even people with the sunniest of dispositions have moments where it’s virtually impossible to maintain a positive outlook. The important thing to remember when the going gets tough is that simply being aware of your emotions is the vital first step in controlling them.

A lot has been made of Emotional Intelligence (EI) in leadership and management studies in recent years and for good reason. It’s widely regarded as a key competency for effective leadership as it enables people to limit the physiological effects of negative emotions.

So what can science tell us about the effects of negative emotions? Many of these effects will come as little surprise but as we’ve said, awareness of our emotions and their effects is half the battle:

Narrow decision making – When we’re under stress, our rational cognitive function is limited, enabling us to narrow our possible decisions to the most obvious choices. This enables us to find a solution faster so that we can remove the factors that are causing us stress. Unfortunately, this also means we don’t always see the best alternatives and solutions to a problem. To view the full spectrum of available choices, our brain functions best when we’re calm and relaxed.

Limited interpretation of events – When we’re experiencing negative emotions, otherwise known as being in a bad mood, we tend to let our conscious and unconscious biases affect our view of events. For instance, a mistake made by an employee may be viewed as an example of incompetence if they’ve previously made similar mistakes but the ability to think rationally and calmly may reveal the mistake was completely outside of the employee’s control.

Reduced linear conscious processing – As mentioned above, when we’re stressed, our body limits the brain’s ability to take a broad view of problems. This also limits our brain’s ability to think through a problem, step by step. Our thought process is quite literally derailed and we’re unable to follow the logical steps that would enable us to achieve the best overall outcome. Many of us will have experienced this during exams where we need to solve a complex problem but we just can’t seem to get our brain into gear. While study and practice can help us through these situations, the ability to maintain a positive outlook will also serve us well.

Reactionary behaviour – These are the outward manifestations of negative emotions and they’re the purest example of the physiological control our body has over our minds. When we’re under enough stress, our fight or flight response is triggered. This is an evolutionary fail safe that once protected us from predators and other aggressive people. People will become uncommunicative or simply remove themselves from a situation. They may also lash out verbally, whether through an email or a shouting match and in the absolute worst cases through physical altercations.

Avoiding opportunities – Fortune favours the brave as they say but the truth is all of us miss opportunities because we allow fear to rule our decision making. When faced with an uncertain future, even if that future may be significantly better than the current situation, we tend to avoid risks, particularly if we’ve had bad past experiences that we want to prevent from reoccurring. These ongoing negative emotions triggered by memories of stress are some of the hardest to overcome but it’s important to reassess these memories and decide how relevant they are to your current situation.

Increased frequency of negative emotions – Unfortunately, our ability to feel negative emotions can be habit forming. The synapses that trigger emotional responses get larger and more powerful the more we use them. If we allow our default responses to always be negative, eventually we’re unable to determine whether our emotions are positive or negative. We might begin to view our emotions as an innate part of our personality. We might say something like “I’m firm but fair” or “I don’t suffer fools” but these are basically our way of justifying the ways that negative emotions control us.

While we may experience genuinely stressful situations where we cannot control our emotions, it’s vitally important that we don’t view our emotions as completely automatic and outside of our control. Being self-aware and developing the ability to perceive emotions as you feel them will enable you to logically assess whether your decision making abilities, thought processes and reactions are being impaired. This will then enable you to take steps to mitigate negative emotions before letting them take control of your career and your life.

AIM’s Leading With Emotional Intelligence course teaches you to apply emotional intelligence through a range of tools and techniques. By understanding the science behind communication, you will find new ways to harness your own emotions and those of others – improve decision-making, behaviour and performance as a result.