Why Talking About Feelings Can Help

Why Talking About Feelings Can Help

Step Two in Marshall Rosenberg’s four-step Nonviolent Communication process involves us in talking about how we’re feeling. More specifically, talking about what we’re feeling upon seeing or hearing something specific (cf step one).

The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined in Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, his first book on the subject. The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, which regulates the fight or flight response. Also known as the lizard brain. When threatened, it can respond irrationally. A rush of stress hormones floods the body before the prefrontal lobes (regulating executive function) can mediate this reaction.

Recent functional MRI research has shown us that that identifying and labelling our feelings actually helps reduce their intensity and returns some of the brain’s activity from the amygdala back to the prefrontal cortex. This allows us to regain more cognitive (rational) control. Psychiatrists refer to this as “affect labelling”.

Why does this matter?

“When we are emotionally upset or stressed we can’t think straight.”

~ Dr. Relly Nadler

Related research has illustrated that when the amygdala is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. This results in our thinking power being disrupted, with consequent deficits in our ability to solve problems, because the blood and oxygen are in the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex. It is like losing 10 to 15 IQ points.

Long story short, “getting emotional” can make us dumber. And as social animals, “getting emotional” can be contagious, and the dumbness can quickly spread through a team, group or whole organisation.

But simply suppressing our emotions is no answer either. Research has shown that suppressing or avoiding emotions can in fact make them stronger. (Cf. The “rebound effect of thought suppression” – Wegner).

Effects of consistent emotion suppression also include increased physical stress on your body, including high blood pressure, increased incidence of diabetes, and heart disease. In addition, people who engage in emotion suppression regularly are more likely to experience stiff joints, bone weakness and more illnesses, due to lowered immunity.

Research has also shown a connection between avoiding emotions and poor memory, as well as more misunderstandings in conversations with others.

Finally, men and women who avoid emotions, especially negative ones, are more likely to experience high anxiety and depression.

Getting Back to Smart

And let’s not forget steps three and four in the NVC process. When we’ve identified our feeling(s), step three allows us to consider which of our needs are not getting met, and step four affords us the opportunity to make a request so as to move closer towards getting those needs met. This all helps in reducing the activity in the amygdala and returning control to the prefrontal cortex. And in us getting smarter again. Or at least, returning to our pre-impairment level of smarts.

Recognise Your Emotions

How do you and your peers deal with emotions in the workplace? By suppressing them? How’s that working out for you?

Maybe “affect labelling” might help make you and your team a little smarter.

And how do you feel about that?

– Bob

Further Reading

What Was I Thinking? Handling the Hijack ~ Dr Relly Nadler
Emotion Suppression: Effects on Mental and Physical Health ~ Article


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