For better or for worse, emotions are a major driving factor behind our behaviors. For example, relationship stresses understandably have the power to generate extremely negative emotions, and separations and divorces can represent some of the worst times in a person’s life. Worse still, negative emotions from emotional struggles like these can often bleed over into our professional lives, hurting our work performance and exacerbating the career-related stress that may have contributed to our personal emotional issues in the first place.
Negative emotions are natural, and no one should ever feel guilty for having them, but the key question is whether we have control over them or they have control over us. In the first case, negative emotions can help make us stronger in the long run. In the second, they have the potential to destroy us. To avoid that, it’s incredibly important to understand both why our emotions exist and how we can maintain control in our lives as we work through them.
As a coach with 17 years of training in neuroscience, I’ve had more than my fair share of executives and business leaders come to me for guidance with managing relationship and other personal emotional issues. One thing I can say for sure is that the strategies I’m sharing here and the others I teach my clients do work. By learning to recognize and understand our emotional struggles and employing proven techniques to help manage them, it becomes possible for anyone to maintain near-100% performance at work while also working through their pain in a healthy, positive way.
The Role And Impact Of Emotions
Our brains are wired to constantly search for threats and rewards, and emotions are the brain’s tool to motivate us in one direction or the other. When the brain detects a reward, it releases a flood of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin — feel-good chemicals designed to make us want more of the thing that triggered them. When the brain detects a threat — either physical or emotional — it releases adrenaline and cortisol, stress hormones responsible for our fight-or-flight response. Our emotions are the result of those chemical messages.
The major flaw with the system is that the chemical reactions that drive our emotions happen incredibly quickly, and we often find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion before the logical parts of our brain have a chance to kick in. Sometimes our emotional response can be so strong that it hijacks the brain altogether, completely blocking out our ability to think rationally.
When that happens, emotions can wreak havoc on our lives both at home and at the office, making it crucial that we learn to understand and regulate them so we can regain control when they get out of hand and, ideally, stop them from taking over in the first place.
Strategies To Help Contain Emotional Distress
Denying or trying to bury negative emotions isn’t healthy. But neither is letting them grow so powerful that they eat away at our professional lives or personal relationships. The key is to develop strategies that allow us to deal with them in a healthy way, where and when it’s appropriate to do so. This is where neuroplasticity and emotional control intersect, and we can use our actions to train our brains to respond to emotional distress the way we want to, rather than letting our subconscious run the show.
Take out frustrations at the gym. I can’t overemphasize how important it is to make time for exercise when struggling with overwhelming and stressful emotions. It isn’t yet entirely understood how exercise impacts the brain so positively, but we know for absolute certain that it does. In the short-term, exercise can provide mood-improving effects in as little as five minutes. There is also strong evidence that light exercise helps reduce depression in the long term.
Prioritizing exercise — ideally, before work, if possible — is a great way to provide a quick mood boost, improve focus and keep the flood of negative emotions at bay, at least until the end of the workday.
Maintain a routine. One of the best ways to maintain performance at work is to proactively maintain a normal routine in other areas of life as much as possible. People in significant emotional distress often withdraw from social groups and regular activities, and the isolation then drags their emotional state down even further in a vicious cycle.
Maintaining as normal a routine as possible outside of work not only helps maintain the human connections that are so important in times of emotional distress, it also helps train the mind to treat things as business as usual back at the office. To be clear, it’s crucial to take time to grieve and work through pain and anger, but that healing shouldn’t be allowed to result in isolation.
Talk to someone. Overwhelming negative emotions are hard to deal with, and it’s common for us to react by trying to bottle everything up. But pretending we’re fine is an extremely short-term strategy — and one that greatly increases the risk of explosive release precisely when we don’t want it to happen.
Whether it’s a family member, friend, therapist or coach, talking to someone about negative emotions provides a safety valve that enables us to release some of our internal emotional pressure. Doing so helps ensure we can stay more focused and in control at work, and just knowing there’s someone to talk to at the end of the workday can be an enormous source of comfort.