If you could genuinely master your emotions take complete control over the way you felt at any given time – then that would be the ultimate technique. I’m serious. If you could do this, then you would become unstoppable in a fight. You would become relentless in the gym. And you would be able to apply yourself to a task in a way that would previously have been impossible.
I imagine that you’re probably rolling your eyes at this point. You probably think I’ve been reading too many hippy blogs. Maybe reading a little too much fluffy self-help. But I’m serious. Most people seriously underestimate the power and influence of their emotions. So, allow me to elucidate you and then demonstrate how you can get your state of mind back under control. At least to some degree.
Unlimited Strength, Perfect Focus, Incredible
Creativity and Social Skills
That’s quite a bold heading right there and you might already be shaking your head in disbelief. But hear me out.
Emotions and Strength
Want strength? Some of the most feared fighters in history were known as the Beserkers. These Norse warriors were so called because of their ‘bersker rage’ – a mad fit of anger that they would fly into on the battle field. In this heightened and agitated state, they would become almost invulnerable and would also be able to accomplish feats of incredible strength.
There have been more recent accounts of something similar too. Hysterical strength is a term used to describe more recent scenarios where individuals have seemingly been able to dig into an immense reserve of strength at will. This is where the stories of Mothers lifting cars off of their children trapped beneath come in. Likewise, there is a story of a rock climber who managed to bench press themselves free of a huge boulder likely 200KG or more.
Think it’s just a myth? Turns out there is a solid scientific explanation for how this might be possible. Under extreme stress, it seems likely that the body produces excess amounts of testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase the heartrate, focus, awareness and muscle tone and that is where the extra strength comes from.
Actually, it goes a little deeper than that even. You see, all of us have limits to our strength imposed by our minds and our biology. When you go to lift a weight, you do so by recruiting muscle fiber little bands that make up the muscle and contract in order to give us our strength. The most muscle fiber that the average person can recruit at once under normal circumstances is around 30%.
The most that a highly trained athlete can recruit is closer to 50%. So, a highly trained athlete is only capable of tapping into roughly half of their maximum strength. This is what we mean when we refer to a ‘mind muscle connection’. Ever seen someone get electrocuted in a movie (think Jurassic Park)? As you know, the idea is that the individual will get flung across the room into the far wall.
What throws them? Their own muscle. The electricity causes all the muscle to contract at once, which creates such a jolt that the person goes absolutey flying. Imagine if you could harness that power and use it to leap up onto a roof!
The reason we can’t access so much of our strength is a) that it would likely cause us injury as we would break a muscle, pull a ligament etc. and b) that it would fatigue us.
If we were to use that much of our muscle power in a single movement, we’d have no energy left for anything else!
But under the right circumstances, being able to dip into these huge reserves of strength is incredibly useful. And adrenaline and other hormones under the right conditions allow us to tap into that power.
Studies show that yelling in the gym can actually increase adrenaline and thereby enhance muscle fiber recruitment, resulting in strength improvements! Now imagine if you could tap into even just 80% of that power at will? Simply by harnessing your emotions?
Emotions for Calm, Collected Focus
But there’s only so far that being able to leap tall buildings and punch through walls will get you. In the real world, physical strength isn’t really what matters. This then is where the ‘flow state’ comes in. A flow state is often describes as a state of calm, focused, bliss. It is what happens when the world seems to slow down because you are so intently focused and engaged on what you are doing.
Have you ever opened a cupboard and seen everything fall out but moved in super-fast motion to catch it? That’s a flow state. More often we hear about it in extreme sports – athletes finding their flow and being able to pull off incredible stunts at incredible speeds. Outside of physical activities it is seen in music. When the entire band synchronizes during a jam, this is a type of flow state.
When you have a conversation with someone that lasts all night, that’s a flow state. When you’re writing a book and you write so long that you don’t even notice the time passing that is a flow state. Studies show us that executives in flow manage are hugely more productive than those that aren’t. The same goes for startups.
So, what is flow? Essentially, it’s another emotion. Another mental state that is triggered by the release of hormones and neurotransmitters. In this case, it is a subtle variation on the fight or flight response, a subtle variation on stress and panic. Here, you believe something is just as important as preventing yourself from getting injured, it is just as compelling as fighting for your life but it is also fun rather than scary.
You have the entire attention of your body and mind which brings about a release of excitatory hormones along with calming ones and those related with bliss such as anandamide. This actually suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, triggering a state known as ‘temporary hypofrontality’. This prevents us from worrying, from second guessing or from over-thinking.
We just do. It’s the opposite to how most of us live our lives today and that’s why many of us are filled with anxiety, frozen with fear. Imagine being able to talk up to a woman/man in a bar and deliver your wittiest conversation ever. Imagine being able to talk in front of an audience with passion and conviction and enrapture them completely in what you’re saying. Imagine being able to work on the projects that matter to you for hours on end without even looking up.
No fear. No doubt. No bursts of anger or unwanted emotion. And this is when our best work is done. This is when we are happiest. Many people try and live their lives in flow as much as possible. The problem is that most of us are full of anxiety and busy with chores and things we need to do.
These limitations leave us stressed, anxious and busy and they take our mind out of the moment. Our entire body and mind cannot possibly be in-sync when we are worrying about debt, or what our boss said at the office.Entering flow means being in the moment which not only makes you happy and confident it makes you unstoppable.
Changing your emotions can even make you more creative. The opposite of a flow state is something called the default mode network. This is a network of brain regions that spring into action when you are engaged in boring repetitious work or when you are just relaxing. This is what happens when you allow yourself to become completely at ease and let your mind wander.
Now many people give this mental state a hard time. They say that this is when your ‘inner Woody Allen’ chirps up. This is the opposite to ‘living in the moment’. But in fact, this is also when your creativity kicks in. This is the state that Einstein was in when he came up with his special theory of relativity (while working in a patent office!).
This is daydreaming and that is when we come up with plans, ideas and more.
No emotion is a bad thing. The answer is just being able to tap into the right emotion at the right time. It’s about emotional control.
And finally, the obvious power of emotion: social skill. If you want to seem confident, then you need to stop worrying about what others think. If you want to be a leader, then you need to be able to take command, not second guess yourself and not get upset and visibly riled when things go wrong. If you want to engage others and make friends and partners, you need to be charismatic, engaging and entertaining.
All these things are based once again on having control over your emotions. But the thing is: most of us don’t have any control. Most of us sulk when we don’t have a good day and put ourselves in even more of a funk. Most of us are scared when things are wrong. When we’re stressed, we argue with our partners and avoid important work in the office. We sabotage ourselves, undermine ourselves and struggle to get things done all because we can’t control our emotions.
So how do you take back control over your emotions? There are multiple ways, but let’s address two important points: physiology and mindset. Physiology refers to the fact that your emotions are really an extension of how you feel. Emotions describe things like happiness, sadness, anger, fear. We think that these emotions are born from our minds but a lot of the time, that’s not the case at all.
Rather, emotions come from our bodies. Emotions come from feelings which include things like hunger, tiredness, hot, cold. The very function of your emotions is to trigger behaviors that will help you to fix the way you feel. When you haven’t eaten enough lately, your blood sugar dips. This in turn triggers a release of cortisol – the stress hormone. This tells you that something needs to change and wakes you up and in the wild, this would have encouraged you to look for food.
When you eat, your blood sugar spikes, you produce leptin and serotonin. This makes you happy and content and encourages you to sleep eventually serotonin converts to melatonin the sleep hormone. So, in other words, the way you feel is often the result your physiology and that changes the way you think. You think you’re angry because you had a bad day? Possibly. More likely, you had a bad day because you’re angry.
And you’re angry because:
- You didn’t sleep
- You’re in mild pain
- You haven’t eaten enough
- You’ve eaten the wrong things
You get the gist? So, one way to change your emotions and to take back control is to acknowledge this. Firstly, recognize that if you’re angry, it’s probably due to physiological reasons and it will pass. At least it won’t seem so bad later.
Secondly, seek to change this. Eat something. Sleep. Take the cue. Learn to follow your own rhythms and work when you’re naturally most productive. Follow the rhythms of the day and get your circadian cycles in check.
And at the same time, look at ways you can directly control your physiology. The very best way? Breathing!
If you learn to breathe correctly (using belly breathing to fill the lower portion of the lungs, then the upper portion) and if you use slow, controlled breaths, then you will be able to lower your heartrate and calm your entire body. This will change your parasympathetic tone, taking you out of ‘fight or flight’ and into ‘rest and digest’.
Try it the next time you feel overly stressed, overly competitive or worked up after an intense workout – your heart rate will slow and your mind will grow calmer. The other tool you can use is something called CBT. Now we’re looking at the psychological, self-talk aspect. CBT stands for ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ and this is a popular form of psychotherapeutic intervention used to treat phobias and other anxiety disorders.
The idea is to look at the content of your thoughts. The self-talk that you give yourself to work yourself into a panic, or to calm yourself down. If you are thinking things like “I’m worried I might fall off that ledge” then of course you are going to be scared. If you think things like “I’m grateful for my wife” then you will be less likely to feel unhappy with where you are in life.
It goes deeper than that of course. You can use CBT to challenge long-held beliefs and to break negative self-talk habits by challenging your thoughts and testing your hypotheses. This is called ‘cognitive restructuring’.
In the short term, you can use CBT techniques in order to more honestly assess your state of mind and your emotions and to then change the way you feel about a situation.
So if you were stressed that you had a deadline you couldn’t meet and it was ruining your evening, then you might use cognitive restructuring in order to assess the thoughts making you stressed and replace them with more productive ones.
For example, you might consider:
- What is the point of being stressed? Will it make matters better?
- What’s the worst case scenario? Would it really be that bad to tell the boss you can’t finish work on time? Are they expecting too much of you anyway?
- When was the last time you did this?
- Are there other ways you could lessen the blow?
- What would you rather pay attention to right now?
Combine this with controlled breathing and bring your focus to the thing that is most useful to you right now. In the long term, you can use CBT in order to bridge the gap between your thoughts and your physiology. You see, your physiology and your emotions are designed to drive you toward desirable states: sex, food, shelter, love, success, social acceptance.
The problem is that the tasks you need to accomplish often don’t get you those things in the short term. In the long term, entering data into that spreadsheet helps you keep your job which helps you pay for food and keep your family!
But in the short term, it just means more boring paperwork.
So now you need to remind yourself why you do what you do. And you’ll do this not only with words but with visualization. Picture where you want to be. Picture the wealth you want to have, the success, the satisfaction. Then remind yourself that the things you do today are actually driving you toward the things you want. This is when your heart and mind will finally be on the same page. And that’s when anything becomes possible.