We’ve all been there. You’re calmly sitting at your desk or kitchen counter, working away at a project, when out of left field, an emotional bomb hits you. Maybe it’s a stressful email from your mother-in-law. Maybe it’s a Slack from your boss about a big mistake you made. And BOOM, you’re in a bad mood!
When we experience negative emotions, unless we’re mindful of what is happening and work to combat it, we lose our ability to engage in deep thinking. Our working memory is impaired, and our ability to take someone else’s perspective is dampened. Your emotional state can also bias you and cause you to lose your ability to home in on the problems and solutions for the business at hand. If you’re trying to be empathetic in the workplace and work with your colleagues to understand their perspectives, your own mood can be a major hindrance.
Why do we lose our cognitive abilities when we experience intense emotions? While getting that email from your mother-in-law or that Slack from your boss may not be the same as encountering a predator on the savannah, some of the same principles apply. When we sense danger, our body prepares us to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode so we can protect ourselves. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for reading, math, and other deep-thinking tasks, is paused.
Scientific studies have proven that worrying and anxiety negatively affect working memory. Participants in a Swiss study who were diagnosed with anxiety were significantly less able to perform a simple arithmetic and memory task. Another study from Wharton and Georgetown showed that anger hampers your ability to take someone else’s perspective. The researchers prompted people into anger and measured their ability to take other people’s perspectives. They found the participants’ abilities diminished far more than in neutral or sad states.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be a slave to your emotional state; there are ways you can protect yourself against these intrusions.
Set focus time. If you’re working on something important, log out of email, mute Slack, and lock the door to your office/guest room. Or put on noise-canceling headphones if you’re in a shared space. Create a physical boundary to keep the bad vibes out while you’re focused.
Name your emotions. The researchers from the Georgetown/Wharton Study found that prompting individuals to correctly attribute their feelings of incidental anger moderates the relationship between anger and perspective-taking. By naming these emotions, you can own them.
Burn it off. As Tony Robbins, one of the greatest motivational coaches on the planet, says, “motion creates emotion.” Whether it’s a walk, 50 jumping jacks, or an energetic dance to a Madonna classic, shaking up your body helps you change your mental state.
Move to a new task. Usually, our to-dos are a mix of serious work and busywork. If you’re in a foul place mentally, moving on to busy work can be a better use of your time as well as a bit of a distraction.
Plagiarize yourself. Research shows that emotions are contagious, even via email and text. To avoid infecting others, it’s helpful to go back to previous communications and copy and paste the text so you know you’re using words that come from a better emotional foundation.
You need your brain to be functioning at a high level under the best of circumstances to read other people’s behaviors and emotions, even more so in a virtual environment with limited signals. By protecting your own mental state, you can make sure you’re functioning at your peak performance, both for your own sake and that of your team.