Emotional regulation – Jedi-skills for the knowledge worker

Some people are natural at it. They keep their calm in most situations, handle mistakes or failures in a mindful and positive way or are able to take a mental step back in the midst of a tricky situation. If you haven’t respected these skills yet, you should. These people are like mind-jedis, with several emotional regulation strategies available, enabling great performance also under pressure.

The biggest misunderstanding among leaders seems to be that emotional suppression equals emotional regulation. Suppression is a form of regulation, but unproductive and even physically harmful. Suppressing seems to impact memory negatively (Turk et al. (2005) and Richards and Gross, 2006), and contraintuitively does not dampen the emotional experience at all (Gross, 2002). “Don’t think about pink elephants. Don’t think about pink elephants”. “Pink Elephants” is what your mind does over and over again…

Some Jedi-tricks of the mind which are relevant for your wellbeing:

  1. Attention distraction (deployment). Works like a charm, but is not always that productive and seems not to be key to emotional regulation (Bebko et al., 2014). “I’m just going to Facebook a bit before starting with that horrifying important report…”
  2. Labeling. Recognize your emotion and name it. You will use your brain’s executive function, which dampens the emotion with incidental or intentional top-down control (Burklund et al., 2014). “Wow. The strength in my anger is incredible right now!”.
  3. Reappraisal. Train yourself to see alternative perspectives and interpretations. “Maybe she is forced by the board to make such a harsh decision”. Reappraising is one of the most productive Jedi-skills available for leaders or knowledge workers. (Burklund et al., 2014) It is a skill. You can train it. You should train it.
  4. Distancing. Viewing situations and yourself from another than the subjective perspective (fly on the wall, yourself 20 years from now). Just try it. A great technique for keeping up a healthy body and mind. (Kross and Ayduk, 2011)
  5. Mindfulness and meditation. Oh yes. If you are a sceptic, that is where you are at right now, and that’s fine. If you want to reappraise and see alternatives, read this (Tang et al., 2007). Or this (Esch, 2014). Or this (Johnson et al., 2014). Or this (Eberth and Sedlmeier, 2012). If numbers 1-4 are equipment, mindfulness is a gym where you train to use them (Garland et al., 2013).

Soft? Well, these skills seem be the top tools to care for your cognitive performance. They are the toughest skills to keep your executive capacity available.

The toughest skills available today

This is common sense, of course. Keeping your cool, not letting negative emotional reactions (“low road”) get in the way of good performance and judgement (“high road”), is better long-term than being hot headed.

Emotional regulation connects directly with your Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) under stress. The PFC is the executive in every conscious thing you do, every conscious thought. It is like your mental sketchpad, the reflective you, absolutely necessary for learning and success in the knowledge age. The PFC is like goldilocks; it has to have everything just right. When a negative event turns on our fight or flight reflex, we are often pushed over the optimal level of stress (scientifically: the optimal level of catechol amines in our PFC), which means our PFC function is markedly impaired by the (stressful) emotional reaction. You are not using your full cognitive capacity when under high levels of stress (emotional reaction). You are reflexive, going on autopilot, and can’t logically weigh alternatives. Making decisions in this state is like having an adolescent you running your life. (Adolescents’ PFCs are not fully developed, by the way). Your autopilot is running the show, not the mindful you. (Arnsten 2009 and 2011, Arnsten, Mazure and Sinha, 2012)

The jedi-tricks are ways to dampen the emotional reaction, gain emotional resilience, and thus helps you keep cool under pressure or bounce back from reactive to reflective mode quicker. Which, in turn, keeps your most important part of the brain in the game.

Adolescents on Autopilot making your decisions?

How many of us have over-stressed management members making decisions, right this moment? Wouldn’t you be calmer knowing they make the decisions with their best capacity (PFC) rather than as an “adolescent on autopilot”?

Me too.

This is why Google’s has a Head of Personal Growth, and why they are running programs such as “Search Inside Yourself”. They got this in 2007. (Baer, 2014)

When will this hit mainstream business? When will you start believing? When will you start doing? And foremost, how will he businesses that have been doing this for ten years gain in momentum compared to the ones who still are asleep? I love the disruption of people practices and people science. Just love it.

Thanks for reading and happy Independence Day for Finland!



Arnsten, A. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), pp.410-422.

Arnsten, A. (2011). Catecholamine Influences on Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortical Networks. Biological Psychiatry, 69(12), pp.e89-e99.

Arnsten, A., Mazure, C. and Sinha, R. (2012). This is Your Brain in Meltdown. Sci Am, 306(4), pp.48-53.

Ayduk, Ö. and Kross, E. (2010). From a distance: Implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), pp.809-829.

Baer, D. (2014). Here’s What Google Teaches Employees In Its ‘Search Inside Yourself’ Course. [online] Business Insider. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/search-inside-yourself-googles-life-changing-mindfulness-course-2014-8 [Accessed 6 Dec. 2014].

Bebko, G., Franconeri, S., Ochsner, K. and Chiao, J. (2014). Attentional deployment is not necessary for successful emotion regulation via cognitive reappraisal or expressive suppression. Emotion, 14(3), pp.504-512.

Burklund, L., Creswell, J., Irwin, M. and Lieberman, M. (2014). The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Eberth, J. and Sedlmeier, P. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation: A Meta-Analysis. Mindfulness, 3(3), pp.174-189.

Esch, T. (2014). The Neurobiology of Meditation and Mindfulness. In: S. Schmidt and H. Walach, ed., Meditation – Neuroscientific Approaches and Philosophical Implications, 2nd ed. Springer International Publishing, pp.pp 153-173.

Garland, E., Hanley, A., Farb, N. and Froeliger, B. (2013). State Mindfulness During Meditation Predicts Enhanced Cognitive Reappraisal. Mindfulness.

Gross, J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), pp.281-291.

Johnson, D., Thom, N., Stanley, E., Haase, L., Simmons, A., Shih, P., Thompson, W., Potterat, E., Minor, T. and Paulus, M. (2014). Modifying Resilience Mechanisms in At-Risk Individuals: A Controlled Study of Mindfulness Training in Marines Preparing for Deployment. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(8), p.844.

Kross, E. and Ayduk, O. (2011). Making Meaning out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), pp.187-191.

Richards, J. and Gross, J. (2006). Personality and emotional memory: How regulating emotion impairs memory for emotional events. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5), pp.631-651.

Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M. and Posner, M. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(43), pp.17152-17156.

Turk, C., Heimberg, R., Luterek, J., Mennin, D. and Fresco, D. (2005). Emotion Dysregulation in Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Comparison with Social Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29(1), pp.89-106.


Photo credit: Faisal AlKhudairy / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA