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.