Friday, 8 April 2016

Choosing the Response: The taming of a family heirloom!

“No! No! No! Let me say this one last time. This ISN’T(pronounced here as EE-ZZZ-IN-TTTTT….. with a menacingly pointed finger for that extra emphasis) happening; Did you get that?!” Even as she was rolling her eyes and yelling in disbelief, Maya could sense her heart rate shoot up for the nth time. Just like last evening, and the one before that. A small and frail looking end of the crumpled brochure seems to cry out for help from within her clenched fist! With a fair idea how this meeting will go from here on, Rita broke out into a cold sweat, as she always does. More than Maya’s temper, she’s worried how the creative team will take one more rejection. If they’re to hang up their boots at this stage, even God can’t save this project. “How do I get this woman to calm down and have some perspective? In the meantime, can someone get me that aspirin please?”  

Is emotional self-regulation the “new oil”? To merely stay focused and respond effectively to tough situations and trying events. It can’t be that hard, right? 

Well, at least some of these aren't helping for sure: 

50-70+ hour weeks at work, the just desserts of life in the fast lane treadmill 
Poor decision making skills while responding to uncertainties
Relationship troubles at work and in personal lives
An epidemic of urban stress and related psychosomatic ailments
A 2015 ASSOCHAM study showed 42.5% of India’s private sector employees suffer from general anxiety disorders
Road rage in the midst of our never-ending traffic woes
Rise in suicide rates
Some time back there were reports that Bangalore is the suicide capital of India
A woefully inadequate social support system. 

In fact, after reading about a recent road rage murder, Rita actually heaved a sigh of relief for life’s small mercies. At least till now, Maya has limited herself to shouting!

So, what is it that’s making it tough for many in our midst (at workplaces and outside) to regulate and channel their emotions for useful outcomes?

The Good Ol' Days

Long long ago, life was much simpler in most parts of the world. During day time, Rita and Maya’s great great great great grandparents had only a few things on their mind. Pick a few nice berries and nuts, and maybe hunt down an animal for supper. And get back to your cave well in time, before dusk. On the way back, they’ve got to cross a particularly dense stretch of forest. An unusual sound here or a shadow there might signal imminent danger. Pretty straightforward choices too. It could be a wild hungry beast or just one’s wild imagination. Not much time for considered reflection though. You can choose to fight or flee, or simply freeze and let the animal figure out what happens next. Luckily, they survived every single encounter like this. As did a small portion of their brain that helped them tide over do-or-die situations of a real kind! They knew that this part of their brain is vital for the survival of their progeny. So, like a cherished family heirloom, it’s been handed down intact across generations, all the way till Instagram addict Rita and Maya who loves her Bloomberg. Let’s come back to it a little while later.

Ever since Prof. Daniel Goleman popularized the term emotional intelligence (EI) in his iconic book, we've seen concerted efforts to raise awareness and competence on EI in the field of education and in the world of business. But, the mainstreaming of emotions is still not as widespread as it should be. Part of it could be due to a near derisive attitude to emotions in many of our workplaces. There’s this mistaken belief that the celebrated trio of “hard” data, information and “cold” logic is antithetical to the “soft” world of emotions.

How can we listen to our emotions and thereby get access to a wider set of data points and nuanced information that our “logical" mind can then act on? In this article, we’ll specifically look at anger, which is one of the most powerful emotions that we experience. Rather than feeling intimidated or embarrassed about it, can we befriend anger and channel it towards better outcomes?

Anger is one of the most powerful of our core emotions. Our reactions to anger can take many forms, constructive and highly destructive. Uncontrolled anger often leads to devastating consequences both for us and others. A cut-throat competitive work-culture, stress and pressures of modern urban life and general paucity of time all add to increasing incidents of “rage-explosion” both in our personal and professional lives. The consequences of this urban anger epidemic are far-reaching. This is further feeding a vicious cycle of broken relationships, increasing stress levels, worsening health statistics, poor and reactive decisions, and even violence in extreme cases. Neither the street nor the cushy boardrooms are immune from this scourge!

The ability to handle anger in a constructive manner is one of the greatest skills that one can possess. The good news is that with some dedicated focus most normal people can work on improving their anger management practices. The idea is not to keep a wide grin all the time, but to recognize we’re angry about something, and then deal with it in a mature manner. So, yes, it isn’t just for the Lamas and monks. So, how can this be done?

This Article presents a 3-Stage Self Regulation process to tame the anger demon!

Regulate ourselves >> Figure out what this is all about, and identify what can be done >> Move towards better outcomes by taking constructive action.

Before that, Let’s look at what typically happens in our brains when we get angry.

Often, the process of anger spiralling starts in the very instant we get confronted by a situation or event or others’ actions. It may get built up over time, and before we realize it, irritation turns to annoyance and anger and finally boiling rage… Research has shown that in the brain we experience an “amygdala hijack” in moments like these. The limbic area of our brain which is the powerhouse of our emotions now springs into action.

This is the area of the brain which prompted Maya’s ancestors to run to safety when a wild beast was spotted. The “fight or flight response” to any likely threat is pretty much sorted out here. This is the family heirloom that we spoke about earlier. And it hasn't evolved much over the years. Spot some danger and it gets its act together in no time.

But what if we hand over our control buttons to this dude even in day to day situations where there’s no big threat to our survival? That’s what we do when we react to simpler situations as though all hell broke loose. Our emotional brain quickly takes over to supposedly “protect” us. The rational area of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex can do the waiting game. This basically means ‘Good Bye’ to reason, at least for a while. In fact the design of the brain is such that signals picked up by our senses can reach the rational brain only after they get to pass through the limbic area.

The rational area needn’t worry; there’s going to be awesome damage control to be taken up in the aftermath of the amygdala hijack dramas! Sometimes, other people also need to pitch in with the processing power of their rational brains for some much needed sanity! Ask Rita after she’s got her aspirin fix. She and her team can write tomes about Maya and her amygdala episodes!

Our post-event rationalization and justification cycles are all part of the damage control. As you can see here, the amygdala hijack is exactly where we start to lose it. And that’s precisely where regulation can do its magic. So, keep reading!


Regulation in this case at least is the first step to liberation! So, how exactly can we allow reason and logic some space before our emotional brain takes over? Be it some shoddy work output, or a hurtful statement, or an upsetting incident. Each of these is a stimulus or trigger that seeks a response. How this response plays out is what determines the quality of emotional intelligence. 

This is where some of the clichéd suggestions of “Count to 10 or 100”, “look at happy kitten pictures on facebook” etc come in handy! What you’re doing is to take up something that can slow down the limbic brain's auto-response.

Maya, agreed that you might not have liked this 7th version of the brochure made by the creative team. But let’s get real here. Is the situation really that awful? And even if it is, will letting your head spin get you the best outcome?

The auto-response is usually what happens without much thought. The liberal cuss-word laden shouting matches, the clenched fists, threatening gestures, and even those celebrated “on the spur-of-the-moment” foolish decisions. They’re all part of the nice meticulous artwork of our auto-response. If we can slow down this rambling monster before it starts its rampage, Boy! Our lives are going to be much better.
Note that. 

Read the Signals

The first step is to recognize that something is making us angry. Get yourself familiar with those physical sensations that accompany or even precede the anger. It could be the first warning signal. Maybe a pain in the stomach, or heaviness in the chest area, or heavy breathing, or a surge of energy near the brain. Recognize some of your warning signals. It varies from person to person.

Stabilize your Energy

And then explore some of these options listed here. If your favourite option isn’t present here, add it in! It certainly helps to work with the mind-body connection. Could get you some quick breakthroughs! The operative word here is dissociation from the drama of the moment. To at least temporarily detach yourself from the “pain” of the situation, so that you can rather associate with solutions and outcomes. Quite often, we spend so much time fighting with the reality of the current situation. By the time we manage to disentangle ourselves, there is very little processing power in the brain to think of any creative solution. Yes, the rational part of the brain runs out of fire-power if you get caught up in the melodrama for too long. Your sugar levels may drop, even as stress hormones like cortisol shoot up. Not the right recipe for finding solutions! Whether you like it or not, the drama has already manifested at physical, physiological and even psychosomatic levels when left to fester for long. Therefore, it makes sense to smartly work with the mind-body connection to slow down the auto-responses. 

Some of the options for regulation include:
Slow and Deep Breathing: Oxygen has great therapeutic benefits in case you forgot! Maybe even save you from the hassle of doing the rounds of the friendly divorce attorney’s plush office! So, allow that diaphragm to expand.
Slow down further: Counting down from 10 to 1; or 100 to 1 when we’re angrier
Shift the Energy:
Get up and walk around for a minute or two
Give a Nice little stretch to your entire body
Grab a glass of water; or make it two!
Dissociate with a personalized statement: You want the rational control centre to get some time. How about telling yourself something like this?: “Hmmm, it is that familiar sensation again. Looks like I am getting angry, very very angry. Let me figure out why this making me so furious. Let me get working on this” If appropriate, add in a hint of humor too. It’s okay, No one will get to know!
Play some Mental Games:
Like, Secretly imagine the other person is Donald Duck quacking away to glory!
Telling yourself in your mind “I am good at solving these situations in style” or something to that effect
Or imagining that you’re telling the other person “I know you want me to get provoked and lose it; Forget it buddy, go bark elsewhere; your time starts NOW!”

Pick your option depending on the situation. It is good to have a well stocked toolkit that you can use. Observe others who seem to handle such situations with élan. Steal ideas from them! Develop routines with some of these ideas that can help you stay in this “zone” of “resourcefulness” more often.

Remember your idea is to stay calm and resourceful. Of course, this is applicable mainly for the non-life-threatening situations. Not when the neighbour’s starving dog is chasing you. Deep breathing can wait at times, you know!

Now that we’ve pulled ourselves back from the precipice, its time to figure out what’s really going on!

Figure Out:

Great! We can get down to understanding the situation & identify the best course of action.
1 Get the Facts
List down the facts
What exactly has happened?
Who has said what?
What happened after that?
If needed, get a pen and jot down the events as they unfolded.

2 Analyze and screen the facts
Are you seeing the full picture? How much of it is fact and how much is fiction?
One of my favourite models is the “Thinking Errors” model used in many Cognitive Behavioural interventions. The idea is that we use certain filters to make our own snap assumptions about events, situations and people. While they may help us arrive at quick “judgements”, they often leave us with distorted or generalized pictures. A few are given here. Check out if you’re using any of these filters.
Black & White thinking: Usually goes with absolutist statements like “He/She is always like this” “You never do anything right”…Never/Ever/Always. When you notice this, flip it around and ask yourself “Really, is it always/ever/never?”
Overgeneralization: This is when we take one or two incidents and make blanket sweeping proclamations/judgements. The same question in the previous segment can make an opening. Maybe it is a one-off! Chill!
Discounting Positives: This is when we “conveniently” ignore positive aspects and exclusively focus on mistakes and negatives. Wear the other hat and see if you can at least mentally acknowledge/recognize some positives that are genuinely there in the person or situation.
Magnification and Minimization: We may exaggerate the situation or its negatives mentally. Sometimes imagining catastrophic situations that may not have happened in reality. And getting all worked up about the same. Ask yourself “Is it really that bad?”; “Who says so?” “According to whom?”

The key point here is to avoid denial of the issue, and stop indulging in wishful thinking about what could have happened. A spirit of critical inquiry with a healthy dose of skepticism is good, but not carping cynicism! And a little tolerance for uncertainty may also help you a lot. Replace the temptation to hold on to absolutist positions with a possibility oriented approach. Keep the working assumption that the relationship is to be saved and the pain points are to be discarded. Not the other way round, unless that’s what you want!

Use these insights to update your picture of what really happened. You’ll thank yourself for this!


1 Identify Desired Outcome
So, the facts and fiction are separated hopefully 
Next step is to identify potential outcomes that you’d like to see
Write down the top 3 things you’d like to see happen; Use the following as a general guideline. Feel free to improvise!
Once this issue is completely solved in the best possible way, what would it be like?  What do I see that will be different? What are the benefits that will accrue? What more needs to happen to make it even better? Is there some way this other person/persons can also feel good about the outcome? If yes, what would be added to this picture?
The operative word here is “best” possible outcome. At this stage, don’t think of the feasibility. Aladdin’s genie is waiting for your wish. Just state it! No, if possible write it down or type it out!
2 Identify Actions
In order to reach this outcome:
What actions can I take from where I am right now?
Who do I talk to?
Who can help me?
What should I watch out for?
What kind of self-regulation can I plan for when I take the action?
Here, again some amount of continuous Self Regulation can be identified as part of action phase.
If the other person(s) is/are again provocative, how can you stay on guard and keep your cool, and still take resourceful action to move forward?
What is the very first step I can take right away?
Take it and MOVE!

Now that sounds like a plan to move forward! Get going, and wish you all the best.

A Snapshot for your reference is given at the end.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

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