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.

“I’m so worried!” “Are you stressed out”? Posts by frightened and frazzled humans flood the internet these days. The current political climate certainly isn’t fostering a general state of calm.

Is there anything new to say about stress—especially at this time? Well … yes, there is. A friend of mine recommended Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress to me last year. Over the summer (when I was less “stressed”), I gobbled it up, and I found some of her key ideas to be quite provocative—and ultimately helpful. If you don’t have the time or energy right now to dive into The Upside of Stress, read on for some of the highlights, and check out her famous TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” here.

McGonigal explains “how the science of stress was born” by describing Hans Selye’s (1936) experiments with rats and the levels of torture they experienced so that he could test “the response of the body to any demand made on it.” These rodents were not undergoing typical day-to-day stressors that many humans do—they were exposed to intense exercise with no rest; they were blasted with loud noises; their bodies were flooded with toxic drugs, and some even had their spinal cords partially severed. McGonigal claims that Selye’s extreme experiments unfortunately set the stage for our “modern terror about stress.” No wonder.

Believe it or not, McGonigal claims that stress may not be as bad for you as you think. Challenging Selye’s “The-Hunger-Games-for-rodents” approach, McGonigal shifts gears to define human stress much differently, as a “biological state designed to help you learn from experience.”

With a powerful focus on “mindset” as a frame her book, she draws on numerous research studies to explain that our response to daily stressors ultimately determines its effect on our bodies, our minds, and even our mortality rates. She challenges traditional understandings of the fight, flight or freeze response to imminent threats and points to the ways in which the stress response actually helps us. Here are several positive ways in which stress might be leveraged to invigorate us, enliven us—and ultimately enrich our lives.

Stress pushes us to “rise to the challenge.” Because stress can focus attention, increase motivation, and mobilize individuals to action, McGonigal suggests that we can benefit from more positive mindsets as we grapple with the generalized state of anxiety we might feel (after reading or watching the news, for example). If we can view our nervousness (and even fear) as feeding a more attentive, energized, and attuned state of mind, we may feel more capable of addressing challenges with greater confidence.

Stress helps us “connect with others.” Studies show that stress responses can heighten prosocial instincts and encourage social cognition. If we feel isolated and overwhelmed, it’s important to listen to that little voice telling us to “reach out” and ask for help. Social networks, support groups, and volunteer activities can create the contexts and conditions necessary to face adversity— in community. More can be accomplished in groups when expectations are high and a sense of group support is palpable.

Stress motivates us to “learn and grow.” With greater knowledge of neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability and potential for growth), the stress response, however intense it may feel, was designed to help us restore nervous system balance and integrate new experiences into our neural repertoire. With each new challenge, our brains can learn and develop.

If Kelly McGonigal is correct, and “stress is a biological state designed to help [us] learn from experience,” how might we best respond today, this week, this year?

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Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. —Victor Frankl

Powerful, right? Although I sometimes have trouble accessing this elusive gap in time, I find this quote inspiring and motivating. It moves me to remember to literally pause when I feel my throat tighten, my heart rate escalate, and the heat rising up through my body. With practice, it IS possible to learn to notice physiological triggers and to breathe deeply into the self-created “space” that Frankl celebrates—rather than falling into my typical knee-jerk reaction.

When a person’s words or a challenging event triggers you, what happens next? Do you acknowledge your bodily response? How do you slow down the chemical surge, interrupt the narrative in your head, and gain access to reasonable next steps? How do you learn to respond rather than react?

Accept—then act. Whatever the present contains, accept it as if you have chosen it. Always work with it, not against it … This will miraculously change your whole life. —Eckhart Tolle

This quote became a mantra for me during a period of time I spent in an intensely toxic work environment. Tolle’s call to “accept” our circumstances may seem almost impossible to enact because humans are wired to respond to potential threats to our well-being. In my situation, acceptance seemed far from what should be the natural response to a difficult job situation that left me with a dark, heavy sense of dread every morning at 6 a.m. However, my ongoing resistance to the dysfunctional climate was certainly not helping either.

I found that accepting (however reluctantly) also opened my eyes to my options. I could stay; I could leave, or I could carefully devise my “Plan B.” I discovered that acceptance wasn’t really surrender or even forbearance. It prompted me to notice and explore alternatives more meaningfully and realistically—whether in my daily responses to colleagues or in the bigger picture of my career trajectory.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. —Maya Angelou

As someone whose typical cognitive distortions involve “catastrophizing” (“I can’t believe this has happened!) and “personalizing” (“Is this all my fault? Did I bring this on myself?”), I appreciate being reminded that I actually don’t control everything. More importantly, Angelou’s words fuel resilience—the capacity to adapt and grow in the face of stress and trauma. When the going gets tough, there are many ways to respond and engage in what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care.” Research-based strategies include engaging in physical exercise, reaching out for social support (online or in person), practicing mindfulness (www.mindful.org), employing strategies to foster distress tolerance (www.linehaninstitute.com), reappraising and reframing thoughts (www.beckinstitute.org), practicing self-compassion (www.self-compassion.org), and employing positive psychology practices to enhance daily well-being (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu).

No matter what daily strategy or tool you choose, the key is PRACTICING it regularly and consistently in order to capitalize on your brain’s plasticity—its ability to re-wire itself over time. Resilience is fueled by a commitment to yourself (not to be “reduced” by another person or event), but it grows and develops through the daily activities and practices you choose to put into action.