The New York Times recently published an article exploring the role of the brain in controlling emotional responses to good and bad situations. The idea that you can decide how to react is an empowering one. A pair of researchers categorized three different types of approaches you can choose from:
- Concealing: “I feel the emotion but won’t show it to others.”
- Adjusting: “I take a different perspective on what’s happening and can quickly let go of my strong feelings.”
- Tolerating: “I’m going to have a strong response and I’m OK with showing that to others.”
The article used President Obama’s measured and calm response to the BP oil spill as an example of a learned behavior and one that he is pro-active in employing. I’d guess he is using an adjusting strategy to manage his emotions to the situation.
In examining my own behavior, I usually employ an adjusting strategy because it allows me to focus on what is happening, giving me the opportunity to change the way I feel and my approach the situation. As an example, I had to spend over four hours in an airport over the July 4th weekend. I focused on the positive of what is occurring (“I get to drink a beer in the airport bar watching the World Cup match I otherwise would have missed”) and did not view that time as wasted.
This is an area where age and the experience it brings can be helpful. In fact, the author cited a study published in 2009 that showed, “people over 55 were much more likely than those aged 25 and under to focus on positive images when in a bad mood — thereby buoying their spirits.” Neuroplasticity is clearly at work here – we can teach ourselves how to respond.
That type of strategy is different from concealing, the situation where the emotional response is felt but the body’s response is suppressed. The challenge with suppression is that the body feels the emotion and you bottle it up. That may be an appropriate social strategy in some situations but it creates additional stress on the individual. And the “no response” outcome makes the other people interacting with you uncomfortable and uncertain what you are really feeling.
The article’s conclusion – that the brain has a role in deciding how to respond emotionally – puts you in control. Try it out and let me know how it goes!