Why when feelings run high, it can get hard to stay focused

When I was in the UK last week, it was difficult to ignore the tension in the air. Every media update, TV panel discussion or radio interview seemed to have only one topic of discussion: the impending Scottish referendum.

As a hybrid (Australianus Anglopithicus) it was an interesting experience to observe the phenomena. Clearly passions had been roused on both sides and the outcome was far from certain.

Uncertainty from the brain’s perspective is a huge threat. We like certainty. We like the security of the familiar and often resist change because of this. With the entire country’s focus on what might or might not be in regards to the Union, other world issues became of secondary importance.

What we focus on changes our brain. The more we focus on one object, the stronger our attentional density in strengthening certain neural pathways. The danger is that we can become a little one-eyed, especially when emotions become involved.

Workplace politics, relationship issues, horrible bosses can all drive our attention to focus on what we are experiencing as a threat. Our emotions are generated subconsciously by the limbic system in the brain, which are then manifested as feelings. If our limbic system continues to be hyper activated with negative feelings associated with a potential threat, this can potentially lead to those actions and behaviours including aggression and verbal abuse that we would otherwise normally suppress.

Which is why, when we need to maintain focus for an important issue, we need to know how to maintain that balance of conscious cognition and subconscious emotional output. It can be tricky, especially if our focus is also being depleted by other factors such as fatigue or distractions. We enjoy a full spectrum of emotions that makes us human. Emotion also plays a vital role in all our decision-making. Lacking emotion, such as in the presence of a brain injury has been shown to make decision-making virtually impossible, as does too much emotion, whether positive or negative. Because we have such a Goldilocks brain, it’s important we know how to keep our prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain we use for paying attention and regulating emotion engaged.

So what can you do to help maintain focus on what matters and regulate your emotional response?

     1.    Call it for what it is.
When faced with a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable or fearful, acknowledge it and ask yourself what is it that is making you feel that way?
Is it the fear of failure, the uncertainty, of perhaps it’s about being asked to do something that doesn’t sit right with your beliefs or values? Labelling the associated emotion out loud “I feel angry/sad/bewildered” helps diminish the emotional intensity.

     2.    Reframe your position.
Check your perception of the situation. Are your feelings based on reality and experience, or supposition and assumption? How can you reappraise what is going on? Are there alternative viewpoints that you can consider? Acknowledging other viewpoints helps to keep things in perspective.

     3.    Understand your why.
Knowing why this matters to you so much can help you determine how much attention a particular issue really deserves.

Our attention is a finite resource. How we allocate our time and energy to our choice of focus determines how much we get done.
By choosing wisely we can maintain our cognitive energy, achieve more and enjoy a greater sense of fulfillment.

How do you reconcile emotion and focus in your workplace and life?
What strategies have you found the most helpful to stay focused in times of high tension?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/22390747@N06/3266471193/”>Hinfrance</a> via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a> <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/help/general/#147″>cc</a>

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