Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/notarim/
The other day I burned my tongue on some delicious-but-too-hot green tea.
I was left with a painful reminder of my own impatience. Frankly I find this ridiculously annoying.
A short while later, as I was getting ready to leave I realized I hadn't made my lunch to bring with me. I decided to make it anyway.
This resulted in my leaving a few minutes late. A bit frantic, I dropped my keys on the way out, forgot my Bluetooth, ran back inside, was even more late, got 2 miles down the road and realized I forgot my phone.
After turning around to retrieve the blasted thing, I then used said phone to call my client and humbly report that I was going to be late to our session.
Yup, the time management coach wasn’t going to be on time.
Here is what was going on inside my brain.
Image Source: http://www.brainharmonycenter.com
Between the tea and the forgotten lunch and who knows what else, I had over-aroused my limbic system.
This is actually pretty common. As the emotional center of our brain the limbic system has a tendency to get hijacked pretty easily.
According to David Rock from his fascinating book, Your Brain At Work, once our emotions get too aroused we shift into auto-pilot and become much more likely to respond negatively to situations.
And here’s the kicker. When our limbic system is going haywire we lose functioning in other areas of the brain, specifically the pre-frontal cortex.
And guess what the prefrontal cortex regulates?
Our ability to make decisions, understand, inhibit, memorize, and plan amongst many other functions.
In effect, by losing it over the tea and forgotten lunch I derailed my ability to think clearly and consequently made poor decisions that lead to my being late for a client.
What should I have done instead?
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinjp/
One technique that recent research has uncovered as a way to calm the limbic system and bring our brains back into balance is to label our current emotional state.
Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman conducted a fascinating study using fMRI technology (fancy brain scans).
When participants labeled the emotions of other people shown to them in pictures, the emotion areas of the brain actually slow down.
By identifying and acknowledging what we are feeling our brains actually inhibit our emotions.
In his study, “Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling,” David Creswell, a neuroscientist at UCLA, repeated Lieberman’s research but this time he measured how mindful people were using the Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale (cool download).
What Creswell discovered was that in people who are more mindful, the brain’s emotion center will actually turn off completely once they have labeled an emotion. He also found that in people who are more mindful, more of their brain becomes part of the inhibition process.
As it turns out, the more we can tune into our emotional state, the more productive our brains will be throughout the day.
And practicing mindfulness dramatically increases the effectiveness of this process.
So rather than focus on my burned tongue and forgotten lunch I could have paused for a moment, tuned in, and acknowledged that I was irritated. Or angry or annoyed or whatever emotion was present or boiling under the surface.
Ultimately, our emotions big and small, just want to be felt. Not wallowed in or indulged but looked squarely in the face and witnessed. This allows them to pass through rather quickly (90 seconds to be exact – read more here).
This process of acknowledgement is an act of mindfulness.
The more we practice tuning into our feelings and being mindful, the more we cultivate the ability to maintain our emotional center throughout the day.
Obviously this can have a wide-reaching effect on our productivity – not to mention our ability to arrive on time to our appointments.
What tricks do you use to balance your emotions throughout the day? Do you have a mindfulness practice? Be sure to share your thoughts with others below.