“How to build a life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.
Americans are emerging from the pandemic more stressed and reactive than ever. For example, in a typical year, the United States sees around 100 to 150 cases of “air rage” – passengers becoming violent or unruly on airplanes. In 2021, there were over 5,700 cases, of which over 4,100 were mask-related. The problem is not confined to heaven: as my colleague Olga Khazan writes, “disorderly, rude and disorderly conduct seems to have spread as much as baking bread and Bridgerton.”
You may not be disrupting a flight or mugging a stranger on the street, but you may be more emotionally unstable than you would like – more prone to strong negative feelings and find yourself more often in confrontations you’d rather avoid, maybe with people you like. A friend of mine refers to COVID as “the Full Employment Divorce Lawyers Act of 2020,” and indeed the evidence suggests the pandemic has torn many families apart. New data on teens abroad shows that emotional reactivity – when emotions are unstable in response to ordinary life stressors – has increased during the pandemic.
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Whenever I hear about these incidents, I think of the best life advice I’ve ever received from my older brother: “Don’t panic.” He was giving me parenting advice, but really, it applies to everything in life. Panicking — “emotional flooding,” in social science jargon — never seems to make things better, and we almost always regret it. The fact that panics are happening with particular frequency right now is an opportunity to understand the phenomenon within ourselves and to learn how to better manage our emotions. If we do, we will be equipped with a skill that will help us be better friends, parents, spouses, and professionals, even when the pandemic is a distant memory.
Psychologist John Gottman defined emotional flooding as an automatic physical and mental response to an unexpected negative reaction from another person, usually nearby, an encounter that we may perceive as threatening. Our brain triggers inefficient and disorganized responses as we prepare to fight or flight. The experience likely involves the amygdala, the part of the brain that automatically produces basic emotional responses to outside cues, including danger. When strongly stimulated, the amygdala takes control of your mental processes, for better (you outrun a tiger) or worse (you get pulled over on a plane). It can cause you to do and say things that surprise you, which author Daniel Goleman calls “amygdala hijacking” in his 1995 book, Emotional intelligence. The phenomenon is observable in fMRI scans; when a person is exposed to stressful stimuli, their amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree.
Emotional floods may have helped your Pleistocene ancestors survive, but they are ill-suited to most modern interactions. Political differences are almost never seen as a big threat. Neither do most interactions with our families. No parent has ever gone to bed saying, “I wish I had yelled at my kids more today,” and research shows that flooding is a strong predictor of hostile discipline. My relationship with my children has always suffered when I succumbed to a panic; it thrived when I didn’t. As I learned to master my amygdala over the years, I noticed a strange thing: my children seemed to study me more intently in the moments after I said or did something that could have led to an amygdala hijack. , but did not.
Beyond damaging personal relationships at home and creating all sorts of difficulties in the world, emotional floods significantly impair decision-making. In a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers observed 233 couples during a problem-solving exercise focusing on topics known to generate conflict (such as money, appreciation of the other and sex). Couples in which at least one partner said they had experienced flooding were the very ones the researchers found to be less effective in finding solutions to their conflict. This is not a groundbreaking finding, but an important one nonetheless. He says our automatic reaction to conflict is at odds with our interests.
The emotional floods and their damaging effects go beyond our family and romantic relationships. Maybe you’ve seen an amygdala hijack in the workplace, when a co-worker “lost it” and lashed out at others, and ended up in the workforce. Or think of the dad who loses his mind during a Little League game in front of all the kids and parents, after being forever known as “Rage-Monster Dad” to others. Panic is almost always a source of regret and embarrassment, not satisfaction and pride. Keeping your cool avoids bad results and sets a good example for others.
Knowing that you shouldn’t panic is easy enough, but keeping your emotions from taking over when you receive a letter from the IRS can seem like a whole different challenge. The secret is to manage your emotions so they don’t manage you. This requires what some social scientists call metacognition: becoming aware of one’s own feelings and observing them as impartially as possible. It activates your executive function, so you can be less impulsive and more in control.
Being metacognitive in times of high stress and difficult emotions takes practice. This requires allowing time to pass between the appearance of your feelings and the expression of your feelings. Stepping back gives your executive brain a chance to choose your reaction instead of just falling into one. Here are three practices that make this possible.
1. Count to 30 (and imagine the consequences).
“When angry, count ten before speaking,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “So very angry, hundred.” Research has shown that this strategy works well in certain circumstances; for example, people with low self-control responded faster and more aggressively to an insult than those with higher self-control. Imposing a 30-second response time on everyone significantly reduced their aggressiveness, but only when there were negative consequences (having to complete a task) for being aggressive.
Suppose you receive an insulting email from a client at work and want to retaliate with an indignant response. Don’t answer yet. Instead, count slowly to 30; imagine your boss reading the exchange (which she might do); then imagine seeing the person face to face after reading your answer. Your answer will be better.
2. Observe your feelings.
The Buddha taught his disciples in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta that in order to deal with emotions, one must observe them as if they were happening to someone else. This way, one can understand them and let them fade away naturally instead of letting them turn into something destructive.
Try it yourself when you disagree with your partner or friend and feel angry. Sit quietly and think about the feelings you are having. Observe the anger as if it were happening to someone else. So tell yourself, “I am not that anger. He will not manage me or make my decisions for me. This metacognition will leave you calm and independent.
3. Write it down.
You may have noticed that when you are upset, if you write about how you feel, you immediately feel better. Journaling is actually one of the best ways to achieve metacognition, which in turn creates emotional cognition and regulation, which provides a sense of control. Recent research shows this very clearly. In a study published in 2020, undergraduate students who were assigned a structured self-reflective journal were better able to understand and regulate their feelings about learning.
If you are, for example, in a relationship that is deteriorating against your will, do not use a confrontational approach from the start. Instead, take a few days to record what is happening as accurately as possible, along with your reaction. Write down the different ways you might react constructively, depending on the other person’s different possible responses. You will find that you are calmer and better able to cope with the situation, even if it seems hopeless.
Managing your emotions is like home improvement: you can teach yourself to do many things well, but it’s best to get professional help when the job is particularly tricky. If your emotional flood is less like a leak around the bathtub and more like a crack in the foundation of the house, you might consider seeking professional help in the form of therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, is designed specifically to teach patients how to understand and manage their unproductive thoughts and emotions. Metacognition has become a particularly important tool in CBT in recent years.
Think of CBT as hiring someone to teach you a skill that’s hard to learn on your own, like fixing the foundation of your house. Approach metacognition less like a patient and more like a student eager to learn something new.
Whether you achieve this on your own or with therapy, learning to be a student of yourself is the most important step in becoming emotionally healthier. If you do the fascinating work of getting to know your spirit, you will possess a source of power that will change your life for the better. The next time your flight is canceled, or your child bites another child, or your upstairs neighbor is tap dancing at midnight, you’ll be able to handle it like a pro.