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  • Writer's pictureKirsti Gwynn

This is Why You Can't Think Straight When You're Emotional

When survival is your main concern, your brain's limbic system in our jumps to action, often quicker than you can even be conscious of. You may have experienced this before by swerving abruptly out of danger on the roads, or having ducked suddenly out of the way when you almost walked into something.

This is your ‘hot’ emotional system, and it is geared for keeping you safe.

But what about when you need to stay calm and controlled, in the face of stress?

A work problem or an upsetting disagreement with someone you love also triggers the ‘hot’ system’s GO response: it registers that you are in danger (that danger can be emotional pain) and causes us to fight or flee (perhaps by sabotaging our own efforts, or pushing someone away).

Later, we might regret having been rash – how could we have damaged something we worked so hard to build? Why couldn’t we have been kinder, more understanding?

On the opposite side of things, there is the cool, cognitive system. This is the most evolved part of your brain and essentially your ability to 'think straight': to analyse, to plan, to consider information, or to pursue a goal.

The ‘hot’ limbic system and the ‘cool’ cognitive system are opposites – when one works more, the other works less. Neuro-imaging studies have confirmed this.

So is it possible to learn to engage our cool system even when emotional stress activates our hot system’s urge to GO?

It absolutely is, and it doesn’t mean turning off your feelings. It means developing your emotional intelligence.

The two self-abilities of EQ are self-awareness and self-regulation. If we can learn self-awareness, we are able to notice that we feel stress in one form or another (hurt, anger, worry, fear), and to understand when it is activating our hot response. Developing the power to exercise self-regulation means intercepting the link between the emotions and the hot response by creating plans for cool system behaviour.

And the most astonishing part?

Research studies have found that the structure of our brain literally changes the more or less we use each system.

It is terrifying to think that the more frequently we lose our cool in the face of stress, the more likely it is to happen – but what empowering news that, with practice, you have the capacity to grow your brain’s physical ability to stay cool, calm and collected.


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