Every colleague I have talked to recently looks tired. Maybe it’s the weather? Maybe it’s the flu virus going around. These winter months can be tough.
In fact, most of my conversations with teachers these days focus on their emotional states or moods. We talk less about instructional practice and more about resilience and well-being.
A few days ago, I was on a coaching call with a high school teacher, and it centered around a challenging moment in her classroom. She described an emotionally-charged incident when she felt that her students had really let her (and themselves) down.
When she learned that they weren’t at all prepared to lead a reading activity for younger students in the school, she was frustrated, disappointed, and downright angry. She needed to find a way to regroup with them, but she wasn’t sure how to communicate, in the moment, without losing it.
Sound familiar to you at all? If you are a manager or leader in your organization, no doubt you can relate.
The Emotional Brain: Six Dimensions
This conversation led me back to a great book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain.
After thirty years of research in the field of affective neuroscience, Richard Davidson published a user-friendly book about his findings. It’s all about understanding your own particular “emotional fingerprint” (or emotional style, as he calls it).
The book’s key purpose is to map out the six brain-based components of “emotional style.” According to his theory, Davidson claims that we can each place ourselves on a continuum relative to the following six dimensions:
- Resilience: How long does it take you to bounce back after a struggle?
- Outlook: How long are you able to sustain positive emotions when good things happen to you?
- Social Intuition: How well do you pick up social signals and cues from others?
- Self-Awareness: Are you able to recognize bodily sensations that signal emotions
- Sensitivity to Context: How much is your ability to emotionally regulate dependent on your context?
- Attention: How sharply and clearly can you focus?
Reflecting on the Six Dimensions
After my coaching client described the incident in her classroom, we drew on these six dimensions to conduct a sort of “post-mortem” analysis of her emotional response at the time:
- How much did you let others’ lack of preparedness get you down?
- Did this incident stick with you throughout the day or were you able to let it go?
- Did you correctly perceive others’ “anxiety” in that moment? Or did you see something that wasn’t necessarily present?
- What did you feel in your body during that moment of upset? (Did you use it as a cue to slow down or adjust your approach?)
- Would this incident have been more or less challenging for you to manage in a small group vs. a large group context? In another classroom? With another group of individuals?
- How clearly did you see what was happening in that moment? Were you able to step back and focus on others’ behaviors before getting caught up in the wave of emotion?
After digging into these questions, the teacher was able to pinpoint her desire to leverage self-awareness, attention, and social intuition more in the future. She realized that she could have benefitted from taking a moment to consciously step back. If she would have asked her students to problem solve around this dilemma in their journals, then she might have been better able to observe her students in that moment, assess her own emotional state, and anticipate possible next steps.
And for the rest of us—how might we take these six dimensions and use them as tools for processing and reflecting on our own specific challenges?
More broadly speaking, how might we learn to become more aware of how we function on each dimension? Davidson’s book includes self-assessments for all six emotional style components, and he offers a brief online assessment for the first of the six, resilience, here.
Perhaps, most importantly, Chapter 11 of his book outlines simple “neurally inspired” exercises for changing your emotional style over time. Examples include:
- Gratitude practices
- Mindfulness meditation
- Body scans
- Focused-attention meditation (centered on an object)
- Cognitive reappraisal training,
If you are looking for further science-based strategies for enhancing resilience, in particular, check out this article.
This month consider focusing on one of the six dimensions of emotional style. Then choose one exercise for nurturing your emotional brain. The most commonly cited practice in his book is mindfulness meditation. Research demonstrates that it can enhance self-awareness, attention, and resilience.
If you would like to better understand the range of mindfulness practices out there, take a look at this piece from the Greater Good Science Center called “How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation.”
Winter is the perfect time to quietly focus on the proper care of our emotional brains.