Many of us make the classic mistake of thinking that suppressing a feeling is the best way to keep calm under pressure. James Gross, a professor at Stanford University and an expert on emotion regulation, has outlined some of the strategies we can use to avoid emotional stress overload:

1) Situation selection: if you are no good at presenting your project to your boss or a client, you can choose not to do so.

2) Situation modification: if you have no choice but to present your project to your boss, modify the situation in some way (for example, be better prepared).

3) Response modulation: while presenting your idea to your boss, try to deflect your anxiety, tension and nerves. You will get nervous, you can’t avoid that, but you will be less affected because you are aware of it.

These three choices work well, but only if those emotions haven’t already manifested themselves. What happens if you are already experiencing them? In this case you have two choices:

1) Express your emotions: if you are sad, cry the way a child would (obviously this isn’t possible in all social situations).

2) Cognitive change: even in the middle of an emotional predicament, you can still rethink things, ‘label’ or ‘reformulate’ your emotions, i.e. change your interpretation of what is happening.

Doctor Gross found that people who attempted to suppress negative emotions failed. Trying ‘not to feel’ something is not only difficult but can be counterproductive. If you try to suppress an emotion in the presence of another, his or her blood pressure will increase. The observer expects to see an emotion, but none is forthcoming. In other words, suppressing emotions literally makes the person next to you feel uncomfortable.

Labelling emotions

Professor Matthew Lieberman discovered through the use of an MRI scanner that the level of activity in the amygdala of participants decreased when they described or labelled an emotion. They felt less emotionally stressed. Labelling what you feel activates a region in the brain responsible for inhibiting or slowing thoughts: cogitate less and you feel less stressed. This also shows that it is wrong to assume that talking about emotions makes things worse. On the contrary, describing an emotion in one or two words helps to diminish it. With time, this practice, which at first is conscious and intentional, will become habitual, almost natural. The brain starts to rewire itself in order to become more effective at dealing with its emotions.

Reformulating an emotion

There are four different techniques, depending on the situation.

1) Reinterpret an event or situation. As we reinterpret, we decide whether the event is threatening or not.

2) Normalise. Describe in a conscious way the different emotions you are going to experience during a change in your life in order to reduce the threat. Starting a new job will make me anxious at first, then unsure of myself, then nostalgic, etc.

3) Reorganise the information. Change the list of priorities in your head. If your job is high on your list and suddenly you have a child, your child will probably come first now. In this way negative emotions about your work cause you less stress.

4) Reposition yourself. This entails putting yourself in another’s shoes in order to see things from a different perspective.

Certainly any of this reformulation techniques is extremely effective in helping to control our emotions. Many studies have shown that people who practice them lead more contented lives. Start reformulating!

This is an extract from Estanislao Bachrach's The Agile Mind: