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.

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Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavior therapy, created an acronym to guide us through moments of distress—or “terrible, horrible, very bad” circumstances. The goal behind the acronym is to develop a skill set for tolerating events and challenging emotions when you cannot immediately change the fact that, for example … your boss continually reprimanded you in front of your colleagues during your morning meeting, your teenage daughter screamed at you through that closed door again, or you just discovered that your dear friend from college is struggling with an addiction.

When I first read Linehan’s claim that someone can “distract” herself through a series of options couched within a model called “ACCEPTS,” I remember smirking. Accept by distracting … oh really?! Yet a large part of the day-to-day human struggle, for me anyway, intensifies in my vigorous resistance to difficult situations, conflicts, and uncomfortable emotions that can feel overwhelming in a given moment.

Distracting with other constructive and worthwhile options is a step toward acceptance and tolerance. If I choose to occupy my mind and body with other activities, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily approve of the event that is making me so angry, sad, or fearful, but it is an opportunity to redirect my energies in a more productive and meaningful way because this thing [this divorce, this job toxicity, this disease my friend is battling] is a reality that I must inevitably bear. It IS, and so are the other possibilities below:

Distract with ACCEPTS*

1.    “With Activities – Engage in exercise or hobbies … call or visit a friend”
What are your go-to activities? Do you have a repertoire of options? Can you throw on your running shoes and take a quick jog? Pick up those knitting needles? Do you enjoy tending those plants on your balcony or window sill? Is it time for a Netflix night or a game night with the kids?

2.    “With Contributing – Contribute to someone; do volunteer work; give something to someone else”

Do you have a “cause”? Is there a way that you give back to your community or neighborhood beyond your traditional work day? In her famous TED Talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites research indicating that people who manage stress best and have greater longevity are individuals who reach out, connect, and extend care to others.

3.    “With Comparisons – Compare yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you”

Instead of the dangers of some social comparisons, which can lead to lowered levels of self-esteem, this form of comparison has the opposite effect. “This is not my worst moment. I’ve managed much more difficult circumstances than this.” The popular refrain, “This is a first-world problem” often helps me to put my minor frustrations in perspective as well.

4.    “With opposite Emotions – Be sure the event creates different emotions. Ideas: scary movies, joke books, comedies…”

What makes you laugh? Your goofy, slobbery dog? Your toddling two-year-old? An impromptu family dance party? A favorite TV show or stand-up comic? (Parks and Recreation is a favorite TV sitcom in my household!) What makes you joyful?

5.    “With Pushing away – Push the situation away by leaving it for a while”

This is a simple exercise in refraining from further rumination. Some suggest that designating a specified time for worrying (e.g., 30 minutes a day) is a better option. Otherwise, immerse yourself in other activities.

6.    “With other Thoughts” – Count to 10; count colors in a painting or tree … work puzzles”

Sometimes easier said than done, but there are multiple tools and methods for cognitive reappraisal (ways to practice re-framing and replacing thoughts) that can also be very beneficial.

7.    “With intense other Sensations – Hold ice in hand; squeeze a rubber ball very hard”

Lots of healthy and appealing options here, right? Sexual activity, loud music, an invigorating CrossFit workout, a super-hot shower.

All of these strategies offer alternatives to feeling bowled over by that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

*See Marsha Linehan’s website at www.linehaninstitute.org for additional resources related to dialectical behavioral therapy.