5 steps to becoming more emotionally agile and being the best version of ourselves

In learning more about how our brains work, we can develop emotional agility by understanding our full range of emotions better, labelling them accurately and then choosing to move forward deliberately.

Jeanette Brown is the creator of Life Journal, an online course on The Vessel that teaches you how to coach yourself to a life you love.

I have been involved in the self-development field for over 20 years and have seen the iterations of different practices and theories. Positive thinking and the Law of Attraction have been constant themes, both practices that I have always thought can be very misleading.

Over the last few years advances in neuroscience – which is the science and mechanics of the brain – has brought more knowledge and evidence to how we can enhance our emotional and physical wellbeing and thrive in this increasingly fraught and complex world.

At the end of the day, it’s our emotions that play a powerful role in our mental and physical health. Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David calls the practice of managing our emotions by mindfully engaging with them “emotional agility.”

In learning more about how our brains work, we can develop emotional agility by understanding our full range of emotions better, labelling them accurately and then choosing to move forward deliberately.

The good news is that we are capable of changing our brains. This is known as neuroplasticity which is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. We can rewire our brains to function differently.

How can we become more emotionally agile?

1. Understand how our brain works

Let’s start with learning about how the brain functions. Our brains are made up of two primary structures.

The limbic system or primitive part of the brain  is the emotional centre of the brain, controls our emotions and how we respond, triggering a sympathetic nervous system response when we’re under stress. This is when we get into fight, flight, or freeze mode and is the brain’s instinctive way of protecting us when we’re under threat.

The limbic system is responsible for keeping us alive, but problems can occur when it stays in that state too long and hijacks us. The amygdala – which is in the emotional centre of the brain – has the ultimate aim of stopping us from getting hurt, but can be very irrational and often creates this hijack.

The prefrontal cortex is more evolved. It is the conscious part of the brain that allows us to reason, apply logic, plan, delay gratification, and experience the meaning beneath our emotions. When we communicate with words and text, we are communicating with our conscious mind.

The prefrontal cortex helps us slow down, assess the situation, and respond to our emotions in an appropriate way. We call this emotional regulation and is a crucial factor in our personal growth and wellbeing.

Both our pre-fontal cortex and limbic systems are meant to work together as one brain. However, if we don’t regulate our emotions appropriately, these parts of the brain can sabotage each other. I think we all know how that feels!

When one part is fully active, the other is less active. When we are very emotional, our discerning thinking abilities are sabotaged.

When we feel happy, neurochemicals like dopamine are released, helping our critical thinking brain to function well. Conversely, when we are feeling stressed, hormones like cortisol are released into our bloodstream causing physical sensations of stress that, if prolonged, can be detrimental to our mental and physical wellbeing.

“When people are in the grip of fear, anxiety or depression, or chronic stress, they are unable to make realistic assessment[s] of situations,” writes Dave Gray, an author and visual thinking coach. “The prefrontal cortex goes ‘offline.’ Creative thinking and innovation, indeed, all higher-level brain functions, are stifled.”

2. Develop self-awareness

Being self-aware is integral to being able to manage our emotions. Self-awareness is about knowing what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it.

The first step to remedying negative feelings is recognizing they actually come from ourselves, and we can control our emotions. They don’t control us. This is a critical component of mental wellbeing.

According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, you only need ninety seconds to identify an emotion and allow it to pass while you simply notice it. When you’re feeling stressed, pausing for ninety seconds and labelling what you’re feeling decreases activity in the amygdala.

Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means you are aware and in control of your own emotions, and you understand the emotions of others.

3. Develop the skillset of emotional agility

A person can have a level of emotional intelligence but still lack the emotional agility to embrace and harness our emotions wisely.

Having emotional agility means we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions. Having difficult emotions is part of the human experience. For our life to be meaningful in any way, it means there are times of stress and pain. Focusing more on thinking positively and suppressing our emotions can make us less resilient.

David states, “Whereas positive thinking and avoidance have overemphasized the role of our thoughts, emotional agility is a skill set that builds on our ability to face our emotions, label them, understand them and then choose to move forward deliberately….

It’s how we deal with our inner world that drives everything. The traditional view of emotions as positive or negative is rigid. In this increasingly complex and uncertain world having emotional agility of facing our emotions, good and bad, understanding them and then moving forward helps us be more resilient and thrive….

Research shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions, even the chaotic, difficult ones, is the foundation to resilience and thriving, and true, authentic happiness.”

4. Learn the language of emotions

To be emotionally agile we need more though than acceptance. We need to be clear on exactly what we are feeling, not just give a quick label. For example, it is not enough to say I am feeling stressed when there are other emotions involved, such as feeling frustrated or disappointed.

David has found that being able to label accurately the different emotions we have and describe them is essential for our emotional agility. We are not our emotions, we feel emotions. We own our emotions; they don’t own us. When we are feeling an emotion, for example like sadness, it’s important to say to ourselves – I am noticing that I am feeling sad rather than – I am sad.

In her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown, a well-known researcher and author, says the ability to precisely name feelings is a crucial skill, especially now in this increasingly complex and fraught world.

In surveys taken by 7,000 people over five years, Brown and her team found that on average people can identify only three emotions as they are actually feeling them: happiness, sadness and anger. In Atlas of the Heart, Brown describes 87 different emotions, pointing out the distinctive features of each, suggesting responses and encouraging people to examine themselves.

5. Using ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to develop emotional agility

ACT, a form of behavioural therapy that has been around for 30 years, combines mindfulness skills with the practice of self-acceptance of your thoughts and feelings. It also involves being committed to action in alignment with your values. These are very much the principles behind emotional agility.

In summary, ACT stands for:

A= Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present

The first step in developing emotional agility is to be aware when you’ve been hooked by your thoughts and feelings. Your thoughts can become rigid and repetitive, and you are stuck in your head.

Labelling your thoughts and feelings accurately helps you understand that they are temporary sources of data that may or may not be useful. They could be a result of ingrained patterns of thinking over many years.

Accepting your thoughts and feelings and responding with an open attitude helps you process them.

Research shows that when emotions are suppressed, they get stronger. As mentioned, emotions are data, you do not have to take them on board. What you can do is ask yourself what this emotion is telling you.

Evidence shows that simple, straightforward mindfulness practice of present moment awareness without judgment, not only improves wellbeing but also provides beneficial biological changes in the brain.

C= Choose a valued direction

To be able to choose a direction, we need to clarify what our core values are and how we want to behave in all facets of our life.

Dr Russ Harris, well known ACT trainer and author, compares values to a compass because they give us direction and guidance on our ongoing journey in life. When we define our values, it helps us be more aware of who we really are and what we stand for.

We can clarify what direction to follow by asking ourselves the following questions.

  • “What is my emotion telling me?”
  • “Which action is in alignment with my values?”
  • “Which action takes me away from my values?”

T= Take action

When we are open to the full range of emotions we experience and unhook ourselves from them, we are able to expand our options and act in a way that aligns with our values.

Values can be called on at any time, in any circumstance in life, even when we are hooked by never-ending thoughts and difficult emotions.

Harris writes, “It’s the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters.”

Committed action means “doing what it takes” to live in alignment with our values even if that brings up pain and discomfort.

In her famous TED talk David says, “emotional agility is the ability to be with our emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values-connected steps.”

When we are able to feel our emotional truth our engagement with life and creativity can thrive. When we take values-aligned action, we can move on the pathway to our best selves.

There’s no question life has become more complex and chaotic. Having emotionally agility is the key to flourishing in this world.

By following these steps above, you can develop emotional agility. It takes commitment and perseverance, but it is worth it!

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