Enjoy this excerpt from our new book, Healthy Leadership.
Your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It can liberate you or imprison you. We know more than ever that how we think and feel directly affects our brain and body. Effective mind management supports sound mental and physical health.
Your intangible mind, which includes thoughts and emotions, changes your tangible brain. To better manage your mind, let’s first get a better understanding of how the brain works.
The human brain is the most complex three pounds in the universe. Picture one of those airline flight route maps with a massive web that connects hundreds of points of destination.
It is a blur of lines going every which direction. Now, multiply that image by one billion and you are starting to get close to what your vast neural network looks like.
The human brain contains approximately 128 billion neurons. Each neuron is connected to 10,000 others. It’s quite a map. Brain-imaging research has proven that the brain is neuroplastic, meaning it can change and grow new neural connections. With repetition, your thoughts that fire together get wired together.
To change your mind, you need to change your emotions and thoughts. First, let’s look at emotions.
When experiencing an emotion, it physiologically lasts for around 90 seconds. However, we often feel it much longer as we ruminate over, or replay, that emotion. For example, if a big project at work goes poorly, you experience the disappointing emotion in that moment. The experience itself is over, but you might continue thinking about it for days, weeks, months, or even years.
Your rumination is creating a stronger neural connection associated with that situation. Your negative emotions also limit possibilities you see. When we are enraged, frustrated, or overwhelmed, our peripheral vision narrows, along with our cognitive vision.
Just think of a time when you felt really overwhelmed with a project at work. The brain’s natural reaction to this negative feeling was to become narrower and more focused. When filled with negative emotion, we tend to see fewer options or solutions.
To help manage your negative emotions, begin with a practice Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, calls “name it to tame it.”
The act of noticing and identifying the emotion helps to create some distance between the emotion and the intense feelings that accompany it. Doing so allows you to pause and use your breath to help calm your physiology.
According to David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, you can reduce stress by up to 50 percent by simply noticing and naming your emotional state.
Ensure that you express the emotion as a passing feeling, not a defined state. For example, instead of saying, “I am sad” (a defined state), a better option is to say, “I feel sad” (a fleeting emotion).
Positive emotions help you see opportunities for growth and improvement, as demonstrated by psychology professor and researcher Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build theory.” Positive emotions facilitate clear thinking about options and enable us to be creative, playful, and curious.
Simply recalling a joyful memory or receiving a small gift can make a difference in your ability to develop creative solutions to daily challenges we face. In fact, Cornell University scientists studied how physicians diagnosed a patient with liver disease by having him think aloud so they could hear their reasoning and the alternatives they considered.
When physicians were given a small gift—a bag of candy—those physicians were better at integrating case information. They were also less likely to fixate on their initial ideas and develop a premature diagnosis.
So, whether you make a nice gesture or give a small gift, creating positive emotions can serve you well during your next doctor’s appointment or any other meeting you have.