The Important of Critical Thinking
As mentioned in the previous blog, the importance of critical thinking when emotional is crucially important for so many individuals in so many situations, including first responders, those in harm’s way, people in intense and meaningful negotiations, couple’s relationships – just about everyone!
The ability to manage your emotions to achieve a goal, despite or in addition to the fact that one is very emotional, is a very important skill to have.
Emotions and Critical Thinking: It’s Not Easy!
Everyone comes to the world with a natural propensity in this skill. Some people are really good at being able to maintain calmness in the throes of a thunderstorm of intense emotions and still perceive clarity in their thoughts and act strategically. Others go off the handle and think in entirely maladaptive ways, saying and doing things they later regret (or not). And everyone is somewhere in-between.
The good news is that the ability to regulate our emotional reactions in order to think more critically and strategically is a trainable skill and has been called numerous things including emotion regulation, emotional intelligence and emotional competence.
But whatever it is called, IT’S NOT EASY! Regulating emotions means that we are attempting to override a process that is largely inborn and inherited, is part of our evolutionary and phylogenetic history, and that we have had practice with for XX years (insert your age).
Judo and Emotion Control
I have been very fortunate not only to have been able to study and conduct research on the emotion system for decades, but also to have had the chance to work on this issue from a very practical perspective in my role as a coach in high-level competitive judo.
Judo competition models real life intense situations; athletes’ heart rates have been clocked as high as 200 beats per minute, all while they need to make split-second tactical decisions in extremely intense situations. The right decision can mean a lifetime of pride and satisfaction, whereas the wrong decision can lead to being slammed on the floor in misery. Thus, athletes need to think critically, strategically and tactically on the fly in intense situations.
Needing to train athletes to do so, and knowing a lot of the research underlying the science of emotion and emotion regulation, I studied, experienced and tried many, many different methods and systems to do so.
These have included:
- Critical incident analyses (there are many ways to do so)
- Journaling (but it needs to be directed and focused analytically)
- Mindfulness meditation (and there’s a ton of ways out there)
- Yoga (all different types)
and many others.
All of these are work if done regularly and as intended. Thus, there’s more than one way to improve emotional skills (whatever you call it).
Our Top Tip to Manage Your Emotions
But for me, the most important takeaway has been what I believe is the lowest common denominator of all approaches, that is, the one elemental component that is the basis of all methods. It underlies meditation, yoga, prayer, athletic training – any method known to increase emotion regulation. And figuring it out has been really important to not only my work training athletes but also to guiding my scientific enterprise on emotion.
It is better breathing.
In all my study and experience, better breathing is the lowest common denominator – the most basic, elemental unit if you will – of all approaches to improving one’s emotional skills. Knowing this has transformed my approach to training this skill, because it informed me that the actual method or activity didn’t really matter, as long as whatever method used was complemented with better breathing. Thus, how we engage in improving emotion regulation is just as important as what we are doing.
Most of us use less than far less than majority of our lung capacity. One reason for this is that our lungs were overdeveloped to do the minimal job necessary to keep us alive (thankfully). More importantly, most of us mainly blow air in and out of the top portion of our lungs. When emotional, many of us take shorter, quicker breaths, reducing even more the air we move. In fact, sometimes when emotional, many of us even stop breathing! And much of this is outside of conscious awareness.
Better breathing means to increase our lung capacity and to breathe more fully and deeply. Doing so is trainable; our lungs move air in and out through the use of muscles and we can train our muscles to do so. We can train our ability to breathe more air in and push more air out. At first this has to be done slowly, consciously, and deliberately.
Better breathing at first requires conscious and deliberate effort, and takes a long time for this activity to become automatic and unconscious, like normal breathing. For most people, a REALLY long time. Over time, breathing better becomes more natural and unconscious. The good thing, however, is that this activity can be incorporated into almost anything, yes the usual suspects – meditation, prayer, yoga, etc. But also many other things like walking, running, sitting, listening to music, reading, etc.
Taking time to expand our lung capacity and to make it somewhat automatic is the most elemental component of emotion regulation. If we are able to do so, better breathing has many great consequences. Not only do we end up with better lung capacity, but we also have (1) greater awareness of what’s going on in a situation (meta-awareness) and greater awareness of our thoughts and emotions (meta-cognition).
Benefits of better meta-cognition
With regard to emotions, better meta-cognition has four direct benefits:
- We are better able to know what makes us emotional in the first place; thus we can do things to avoid becoming emotional or adjust our expectations so that we don’t become as intensely emotional.
- We know more quickly when we are emotional, and thus are able to get on top of it earlier.
- We are better able to recover our cognitive capacities even when we are emotional (decrease recovery time).
- Once we notice we are emotional, we have a method to think more critically and strategically in the moment; focusing on better breathing will release us from the stronghold of limited cognitive gating that occurs in the throes of an emotion.
Next time you’re emotional, try remembering your breathing exercises and start breathing more deeply and fully and you’ll hopefully see the stronghold that emotions have on you gradually melt away as you gain more cognitive clarity.
It doesn’t happen overnight.
Again, better breathing doesn’t improve overnight; it takes time and conscious effort. But improving this ability has so many positive outcomes. And you can do it anywhere, anytime.
In fact, how about taking some time right now to sit (or stand or lie) and just breathe better? Here’s a wonderful 10 minute breathing meditation that I’ve used in the past that you may find helpful.
Making a regular practice out of a little activity can lead to a lifetime of good. Enjoy!