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May 13, 2017

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How to Recognize and Manage a “Limbic Storm” (Hint: We all Have Limbic Storms)

“Calm down.” “Take it easy.” “Hold on a sec.” “Don’t make any snap decisions.” “Think it through.” Common phrases, with something in common – advice for acknowledging and managing emotions, especially those pesky, potentially regrettable “knee jerk” reactions.

 

Emotions can be tough to talk about, but they’re in play 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During coaching sessions, I often explain emotions to clients as energy in motion (e-motion). All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act. The root of the word emotion is motere, Latin for “to move,” plus the prefix “e-“ to connote “moving away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion.”1

 

No matter how tough, together, and businesslike we might want to believe we are, our emotions affect thinking, decision making and relationships in our professional as well as personal lives. And that’s not surprising. Daniel Goleman, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More than IQ,[1] wrote: “The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.” These two “brains” are actually part of what’s called the limbic system. The neo-cortex is the “thinking brain” while the amygdala is the part of the brain that reacts with a set of programmed regulators to ensure survival. It’s interesting that the neo-cortex evolved after the amygdala, so there was an emotional brain long before there was a thinking brain.

 

How does the amygdala essentially hijack the brain in an emotional situation? Sensory signals from the eye or ear travel with lightning speed to the amygdala first, and then another signal is sent to the neo-cortex nanoseconds later.

 

Here’s an all-too-familiar example: A driver blatantly cuts you off and dashes into that parking space you’ve been waiting for patiently. That driver’s action sent a signal to your amygdala and your emotions were off and running — setting you up to blast your horn or yell at the driver. But the response from the neo-cortex says, “whoa, you might not really want to do that. It’s not terribly productive.” Sometimes the neo-cortex sends its message to you in time; other times, well, those are the times you might feel a bit sheepish after your emotional response.

 

According to Goleman,[2] the amygdala/neo-cortex circuit “does much to explain the power of emotion to overwhelm rationality.” While the amygdala undoubtedly saved many a caveman from certain doom, evolution has created a neo-cortex that is much more informed than the amygdala.

The sooner the emotional engagement with a particular event has stopped, the sooner calmer minds will prevail. What can you do when an emotional response may generate a negative, unproductive response? Well, you could try to fast forward your reaction to a calmer place, or do the following:

  • Breathe. Take 5 or 6 long and deep breaths. If you are not in a situation in which you can close your eyes, breathe this way nonetheless. As you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in clear and pure energy.

  • Repeat calming words or phrases. Try saying “Stop, stop, stop,” “Cancel, cancel, cancel,” “Relax, relax, relax”, “Calm, calm, calm”, “Take it easy,” etc.

  • Distract yourself. Think of a place or event that gives you great peace. The beach, a mountaintop, a great dinner, beautiful music, etc. Assuming I’m not in a situation that makes meditation or yoga impractical, those are my favorite approaches for maintaining calm. Please visit my meditation blog "Take a Breath, Will You?" 

  • Confirmation. Remind yourself that you are better and greater than this one situation. What just happened doesn’t define you; it was just one lousy event, and it may have even been a relatively small event that triggered the emotion.

  • Gratitude. Count your blessings and look for the lesson learned. If one of my clients is managing a particular emotion, let’s say, irritability, I ask him or her to record every time s/he experiences that emotion during the day. This helps us identify, and then learn to manage, the trigger.

Lest we think unkindly of the limbic system, we need to remember that not all emotional hijackings are distressing. Some are protective in that they alert us to danger, and some are responses to positive stimuli. For instance, limbic responses are involved in moments of intense joy. Or, when a something strikes your “funny bone” and you experience a real belly laugh, that too is a limbic response. For my take on the benefits of a belly laugh, please to read my blog Laughing and Smiling – More Powerful than You Know.

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More than IQ, October, 2006.

 

[2] Ibid.

 

For more information, please visit our website at www.Bill-Hooker.com and take advantage of our no-obligation, free, coaching session with a certified ICF (International Coach Federation) Coaching professional.

 

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