3 Steps To Managing Emotions In the Moment

During the recession years of 2008-2010, I worked for a large financial institution in New York City. For 2-3 years, we were all stressed; for our jobs, for our families, for our futures, for the economy. We were not our best selves in those years. There was no leadership or personal development. No merit increases. No focus on well-being or work/life balance. And no ramifications for poor leadership skills. The prevailing sentiment was, “just hunker down, do what needs to be done, and don’t get fired.”

One of the executives at the firm was notorious for her shrill, heavy-handed approach. We cringed and braced when she came around, prepared for the sledge hammer of suffering she’d deliver to us and the teams we led. For me, merely the sound of her voice in the hallway evoked a thrumming pulse in the back of my neck. My shoulders would tense, my head would start to throb, and I’d dread the fight that would inevitably ensue as we battled out her expansive requirements and my teams’ scope limitations.

Except, it wasn’t inevitable. It was behavioral. Habitual. Reactive. The emotional baggage stored in my limbic system caused me to react the same way, every time she stepped into my office. And it was controllable. I remember the day I consciously decided to stop the pattern and take a different approach. At the sound of her voice, I felt the standard physical response - the neck pulse, the shoulder tense, the head throb - and I made the conscious decision to handle whatever she brought to my door calmly, rationally, and even compassionately. Within 10 minutes of her being in my office, my shift in my behavior shifted hers as well. Her tone lowered, her stance eased, and our dialogue evolved into a more effective cadence geared toward resolution. It changed the way we worked together, and all I needed to do was shift my thinking.

Emotional regulation takes time, practice and awareness. It’s not always easy, but it’s something that we can master if we put our minds to it. Here are three steps to managing your emotions - whether personally or professionally.

1. "I'm having a moment" - Understand Your Brain on Emotions

You know those moments when rational thinking flies out the window and our feelings take control of our actions? It’s called an “amygdala hijack” - named for that part of our brain that regulates our emotions - and it's an instinctive response to our internal fight-flight-freeze instincts. The result is a surge of emotions like anger (fight), fear (flight), or anxiety (freeze) that sucks the oxygen from our brain and shuts down the cerebral cortex frontal lobe that does our rational thinking and problem solving.

The key is to know that this is happening. Know yourself well enough to recognize “I’m having a moment” and give yourself whatever permission and time to adjust. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in this space lies our power and our freedom.” Whether it’s nano-seconds or minutes, that space becomes crucial to your emotional regulation. It changes the response from reactive and irrational to thoughtful and effective.

2. "Take a deep breath" - Not Just a Trivializing Phrase

Though the phrase “Take a deep breath” seems patronizing in the moment, it's actually spot on. During an amygdala hijack, our brain is working hard to send adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol through our body, so there’s little oxygen in our brain to control rational thought. Deep breaths replenish that missing oxygen and allow our neocortex the space it needs to think rationally.

Go ahead and take that deep breath. Take three. Take as many as you need, and notice how each one reduces your heart rate and relaxes your muscles.

3. "Hello, emotion." - Practice R-A-I-N

Buddhist teachers use a mindfulness tool that offers in-the-moment support managing intense emotions. We first have to be self-aware enough to recognize “I’m having a moment”. Then, this quick and easy practice makes the emotion more manageable. Over time, it changes the habitual ways we react and the unconscious patterns we’ve set for ourselves. It does takes practice, so put this to work the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, or a work situation causes lost sleep, or a loved one triggers you. The more you practice, the more instinctive it becomes. 

  • R - Recognize - This the self-awareness of “Emotions are happening”, whatever they may be. Notice it. Be aware. Give it a word or a characteristic: anxiety, anger, worry, nervousness and ask yourself what’s happening inside. Don’t judge the emotion. Rather, let it be recognized.

  • A - Allow - Let the emotion be there inside of you. It’s there for a reason, and it’s part of who you are. The process of allowing / consenting the feeling to be there makes us less defensive and more understanding for why it’s there.

  • I - Investigate - Ask yourself the question of “What is happening inside me?” Or “How am I experiencing this in my body?” to dive a little further into where and how the emotion manifests. Over time, we notice the correlation between our specific emotions and physical effects, which serves us to further recognize and allow.

  • N - Nurture - Give that emotion and your thoughts a gentle welcome and understanding. “Hello, anger. You’re here because you think we’re being threatened…” or “Hello, anxiety. You’re fearful of…” Insert your own emotion and understanding as it applies to you and give it that space. With this nurturing and awareness of the emotion and the reasons for, comes the knowledge and (perhaps) the decision that this doesn’t have to drive or define you.

Each of the above three steps are different ways to help your mind and your body work through heavy emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, et al. The result is a more self-aware and emotionally regulated you, and that regulation helps yourself, your family, your friends, and your colleagues.

Five Benefits of a Leadership Development Program

Clients often ask about the benefits of a formal leadership development program for their top-talent leaders. It's a valid question, as development programs come with a price tag of time and money. But it's also a long-term investment in your people and your organization. Here, we explore five of the benefits that leadership training can offer. 

  1. Engaged Teams are Profitable and Innovative: 56% of workers are disengaged, a statistic that’s further impacted by remote offices and global distribution of teams. The greatest profit potential and cost efficiencies come from engaged team whose leaders connect through purpose, recognition, and values, helping employees think outside the box rather than stifling creativity and growth.
  2. Excellent Leaders and Employee Satisfaction Go Hand In Hand: According to Forbes, the #2 driver of employee satisfaction is their relationship with their leader. The most evolved and excellent leaders help improve satisfaction, career progression, personal development, and long-term success.
  3. The Best Leaders are Hands-on Coaches: Excellent leaders are excellent coaches. They take the time to get to know their team players, their talents, background, lives, and preferences. This connection fosters commitment and loyalty – not just compliance. Teaching leaders to forge this connection strengthens the skills of their employees, and reduces turnover and the cost of inefficiencies.
  4. The Cohort Effect: Learning in a team environment develops camaraderie and bonding among future leaders, using this shared experience to build trust, reliance, and connection. They’ll begin to rely on and communicate with each other through a common language, common lessons, and common experience of leadership development.
  5. Development Programs Create a Leadership Pipeline: Only 1/3 of today’s companies are prepared for smooth leadership transitions. A good leadership program not only teaches theory, but also prepares its leaders for the moment. Similar to strategy, mental makeup and leadership awareness can be taught so leaders are better prepared to step into new roles with the challenges of a global/remote workforces, unexpected obstacles, team dysfunction, and adversity – and they lead through confidence and success.

Three Ways PTSD Treatment Made Me A Better Leader

In 2003, my healthy, marathon-running 31 yr old husband died suddenly from a pulmonary arterial dissection. Those five hours were the worst, most horrific I hope I'll ever know. For years, I struggled with the impacts of grief and life as a young widow. I assumed the darkness and depression were standard parts of widowhood, and would be my struggles forever. But one wintery night - 8 years after my husband died - my little sister intervened. “Heidi," she said. "You're not you. I’ve done some research and talked to some experts, and I'm certain you have PTSD.” I was sure she was wrong; I hadn't served in a war or been impacted by abuse. This was just grief. But I promised that I'd start therapy and, in the very first session, the therapist confirmed my sister's belief: I had PTSD.  

The diagnosis shed a small ray of light and reason on my recurring nightmares and flashbacks. Here it was: a logical explanation why I still didn’t talk about That Night. There was an answer for why I was deeply stuck, and it wasn’t because - as I’d scolded myself - I was "weak". It was because I had suffered a deeply traumatic event. And I had PTSD.

The Treatment

The treatment process, a therapeutic modality called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), involved exploring my memories of That Night piece by piece, identifying the prevalent emotion(s), and revisiting the memory multiple times while sparking the right and left brain to fire. Our neurological knowledge only scratches the surface as to why it works, but it’s a proven technique on veterans, abuse survivors, accident victims, and this particular widow.

The EMDR process untangled me in ways I didn’t even know I was tangled. I grew emotionally stronger and gained confidence in my decision making, my capabilities, and my professional aspirations. I began to take emotional risks that I wouldn’t have imagined one year before. And I began to apply my PTSD learnings to my leadership skills, altering my interactions with my team and my colleagues based on what I'd uncovered about myself. Here's what I learned and how it changed me:

1. Understanding The Neurology of Stress

  • The Learnings: 
    • We talk about stress daily - it’s become a socially acceptable part of our lives and our careers. But how many leaders understand how the science of causes physical and mental alterations?
    • The neuroendocrine system issues a stress response and releases high cortisol, which weakens the immune system. Breath becomes short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases dramatically, and sleep disturbance or insomnia become an issue. The limbic system is in a constant state of flight-flight-freeze, impacting a person's ability to operate rationally or take interest in things around them.
  • My Application: As leaders, we have a responsibility to pay attention to our employees' stress levels. Stress is much more than a state of mind, and prolonged stress causes mental deterioration individually and across the team, resulting in impacts to productivity, culture, and employee satisfaction. Obviously. Taking time for light-hearted interactions, team lunches, happy hours, and socialization gives the brain time to step away from the stress. None of this is new. We’ve always known that team bonding is good for our people. For me, diving into the science behind stress and understanding the necessity of bonding helped solidify my responsibility as a leader to create this space for my people.

2. Giving Space To An Employee's Mental State and Capacity

  • The Learnings: In the years since my husband died, my professional circle has been affected by traumatic loss multiple times. A peer lost her husband to heart failure. One direct employee had a critically sick child in the ICU. Another direct employee lost her husband to cancer. A coworker lost his son to leukemia. Life is life. It is neither fair nor easy, and we leaders are often unprepared for how to navigate the physical and emotional implications on our teams.
  • My Application: Allow the space for your team to be emotionally vulnerable if the time is right. Be a therapist and a coach, and give them a safe space to talk and - often - to cry. It’s healthy and helpful, and not something we need to “fix” or “stop”. Just listen, nod, ask open-ended questions, and ask what they’d like to do next.  Yes, our schedules are tight, deadlines are looming, and metrics are under pressure. But the time we take to let our employees vent and be who they are is priceless. (Article: When Leadership and Grief Intersect)

3. Paying Homage To the Right Brain

  • The Learnings: Businesses are hard-wired for left brain thinking. We gravitate toward logical processes, rational thought, and analytical reasoning. But the right brain allows for creativity, feeling and intuition, strategic ideas and innovation. The EMDR process helped me realize how important it is to tap into that “right brain” thinking - to make space and time for the creative, feeling side of us to emerge. Allowing right-brain moments in the workplace makes the team more innovative and inspired.
  • My Application: We can’t impose on our employees to explore their creative side outside of work, but we can create creative opportunities within the workplace. A brainstorming session. A design thinking innovation workshop. A problem-solving session in which all solutions must be presented via drawing. A volunteering or artistic team-building event. I’ve seen some powerful problem-solving happen in the kitchen of a homeless shelter during volunteering event, and all I needed to do was block out their calendars for a few hours to make it happen.

The process of working through my PTSD enlightened me as a human being, and the learnings of trauma and the brain helped me grow as a leader. I’ll certainly never look at 1-on-1 time or team building activities the same.