One of the most common requests my coaching clients ask me is to help them learn how to better control their emotions and reactions in stressful situations.
Why do emotions run high when we’re in stressful situations?
Let’s take an example of an employee feeling threatened by a coworker who’s bad-mouthing their work. It’s a pretty common situation. People would react differently to this type of scenario.
Let’s take the example of Mary. Mary has grown up in an environment where she has never been valued, maybe her parents didn’t know how to express their love and did so too sparingly. She’s worked very hard all her life to get scraps of recognition from her closest family members. More often than not, she would be made to feel like she’s not good enough to be cared for, to be worthy of love. As a result, Mary has tried to be perfect in everything she does to fill that void: good behaviour to get approval from her parents, good grades to get praise from teachers, good work to get praise from manager. Being good was her coping mechanism to get love as a child and she is unconsciously replicating this pattern as an adult in her working life.
When Mary hears the comment from her co-worker, what she hears is not “she did not do this assignment well”, what she hears is “you are not good”, “nothing you do is good”, “you are not worthy”. Everything she is afraid of, to “not be worthy of love”, is happening to her in that moment again. She is not aware of it, but inside, her brain is recognising that pain she has carried all her life, and is adding the weight of all this pain to the comment of the co-worker. How traumatising was it for little Mary, when she was a little girl, to not feel loved?
Then how understandable is it, that with all of this unconsciously going through Mary’s brain, she’s an emotional mess in that moment?
How are we handling stressful situations?
We have inherited our brain from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In these times, when one would perceive a danger, they had to react fast. That danger would be very real and life threatening: an encounter with a predator, for example. In order to get out of this situation alive, our ancestors would have to focus every single resource they had to assess the situation and respond to it in a manner that gives them the best chance of survival. The options are down to three: fight, flight or freeze. There is only them and the danger, everything else can wait.
This is a very useful feature of our body, because when you’re in such danger, that’s what you need. The concentration of all your resources to that one single response allows you to do things you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise: run the fastest you’ve ever run and sustain that speed, make that impossible shot.
In our society today, however, we misuse that brain function. We have 2 modes: “danger” and “not danger”, and what we perceive as danger in our everyday lives are not the same life threatening dangers as our ancestors did. As a result the danger mode gets activated for no good reason.
If we come back to Mary’s example, when she hears that comment form her coworker, her “danger mode” and she engages in one of these stress-responses:
Fight: responding back with aggressiveness, “your work is bad”, “You’re the bad one”,
Flight: escaping the situation, this can be stepping down from the project or resigning,
Freeze: hiding, doing nothing, not responding and letting the comment unchallenged, hoping it will go away on its own.
None of these responses are a reflection of who Mary is and of how she would like to respond to this situation, however, she’s trapped in her emotions, heightened by the echo of past similar emotional experiences.
Because her focus is all about the perceived danger: the comment that threatens her standing in the workplace, she is not able to take a step back and assess what really is going on, see the bigger picture and react as who she is.
What is the impact of stress?
As a first impact, once Mary has recovered from the stress of the moment, she will ruminate on how she reacted and feel guilt, shame, remorse, frustration. A wide range of negative emotions that will further reinforce the pattern she is under: the risk of not being good enough. She will lose a great deal of energy navigating these emotions.
That kind of stress can be harmful, especially if it is felt through over long periods of time. It is extremely demanding on the body to be so focused on perceived dangers, to be constantly on the lookout for them. In time, it can lead to serious physical symptoms and illnesses.
That in essence is a burn-out: stress consumes so much energy that the body is not able to recover. Over time, the imbalance deepens and the body breaks down, and can no longer function normally. It may start slowly but it will grow in time if left unchecked.
What can you do about stress?
Stress is information that something is wrong and needs your full attention. The trick is to acknowledge the information, let go of stress and deal with it in full from a place of balance and wisdom: we call that a state of coherence.
It is possible to do so by letting your body know that it is safe, which is the code signal to “deactivate” the danger mode. And the great news is we have a built-in tool that can do just that: heart coherence. To achieve heart coherence, one deliberately breathes slowly, deeply, through the heart. That is the signal to your body that you are safe.
If you measure your heartbeat patterns — your Heart Rate Variability, when your heart is in a state of coherence, the pattern of the length of time between heartbeats has a steady flow, represented in a sinusoidal wave, when it is not, the pattern is all over the place. So breathing and connecting with your heart has the impact of getting a breadcrumb curve to transform into a nice sinusoidal one. When you’re skilled at it, it is a very quick process.
“Well”, you might tell me, “I breathe every day and this isn’t helping one bit!”
Yes, that is true, and you also walk every day, that does not make you able to run a marathon. To be able to run a marathon, you have to train, over time, with discipline and motivation. Controlling your stress is the equivalent to running your marathon. You have to learn, through practice, how to breathe in such a way that calms your stress reactions, and build the “mental muscles” that will recognise this as the signal to shut down the stress reaction.
So in Mary’s example, when she hears the comment, she can take a few deep breaths (assuming that she regularly practices heart coherence). She feels calmer, and rationalises that it’s just a comment, and then decides what to do.
Maybe she will reach out to the co-worker and ask for feedback and context on their comment so that she can learn from their perspective.
Maybe she will realise that the co-worker made the comment because they felt left out of the project and reflect on how she can be more inclusive.
Maybe she will realise that the co-worker is generally negative about everything and will feel empathy for them for always focusing on the negative.
The point is, she’s removing her own emotions from the situation, and is looking at it from a factual perspective.
How do I breathe?
According to HeartMath, who first researched heart coherence and its impact on stress there are 3 easy steps to follow:
1 — Focus your attention to your heart (putting a hand on your heart helps),
2 — Slightly slow down your breathing (5 seconds for each inhale and exhale, for example),
3 — Imagine that you are breathing from the heart.
Practice this every day, for 3 minutes at a time, to start with, for at least a month, and pay attention to what you notice about your stress reactions.
Breathing is only one tool you have to manage stress but it is a simple, accessible and potent one. Are you willing to take 3 minutes a day in order to regulate and manage your emotions and better care for yourself and those around you?
What is the impact of learning how to manage your emotions?
Learning how to manage and regulate your own emotions can have a wide range of benefits in your life. These are only some of the benefits my coaching clients have reported to me after working together and who, like Mary, have embraced the breathing practice:
Being able to successfully handle difficult conversations — one coaching client recently commented on how they were able to give feedback to their manager without engaging their own emotions nor their manager’s emotions,
Being able to push back and set boundaries — many clients have reported being able to say no more often, in places where they would have felt bound to say yes before, with grace, in a perfectly reasonable and factual manner, that was heard and respected,
Being able to be more productive — one client commented that they spent so much time reflecting on their own emotions and the impact of their stressful reactions, that when they learned to control them, they felt they had more time in the day and were able to focus more easily on the task at hand,
Creating a better environment around them — many have reported, whether at work or at home, that they felt more ease in interacting with those around them.
Instead of a pingpong table, we could imagine companies investing in a policy that states every meeting starts with 3 minutes of breathing, so that everybody in the room can be present for the issue at hand, free of previous triggers and in control of their own stress reactions.
How could you integrate coherence breathing in your day?