How to Get Control of Your Emotions and Improve Your Brain

Every emotion you feel can be mapped to measurable biological activity in your brain — especially in the limbic system and prefrontal cortex. Over time, your repetitive emotional patterns become established pathways in your brain and your signature emotional style.

Emotional Style

According to The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson Ph.D. and Sharon Begley,  there are six emotional styles. The authors define an emotional style as a consistent way of responding to the experiences of your life:

It [emotional style] is governed by specific identifiable brain circuits and can be measured using objective laboratory methods. Emotional style influences the likelihood of feeling emotional states, traits, and moods. Because Emotional Styles are much closer to underlying brain systems than emotional states or traits, they can be considered the atoms of our emotional lives –their fundamental building blocks.”

Based on research in affective neuroscience, the authors determined the following emotional styles can be mapped to specific brain patterns:

  • Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
  • Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
  • Social Intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from people around you
  • Self-Awareness: how well you perceive the bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
  • Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
  • Attention: how clear and sharp your focus is.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EQ or EI) is often confused with personality, but personality has very little to do with it, surprisingly. Emotional intelligence differs from IQ and shows no correlation to it in studies. IQ, your ability to learn, is highly genetic and stays fairly constant over your life. EI is a skill you can learn and develop. Generally, EI includes three skills:

  1. The capacity to identify your own emotions and those of others;
  2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks, like thinking and problems solving;
  3. Being able to manage emotions, including regulating your own emotions and influencing the emotions of another person, for example, cheer them up or calm them down.

You can take a quiz to assess your emotional intelligence here.

Research suggests that EI is a strong predictor of happiness and professional success.

Locus of Control

Research has determined that there is a significant relationship between emotional intelligence and locus of control. Locus of control describes how much a person believes they can influence events in their lives that affect them. The basic question underlying the concept is whether you believe that you have control over your life or something else does, like a higher power or random luck. Studies show that your view of locus of control greatly impacts your self-control and happiness.

Internal Locus of Control

Someone with an inner locus of control believes that the events in their life, good and bad, are caused by factors over which they have some control, such as attitude, preparation, and effort. People with an internal locus of control look for ways in which they contributed to events, learn from them, and adjust their future behavior accordingly.

People with an inner locus of control exert conscious influence over their emotional states, decisions, and reactions to external events. They believe that they’re responsible for their lives and don’t see themselves as victims. Research has determined that people with an internal locus of control:

External Locus of Control

A person with an outer locus of control views their emotional states and actions as being driven by events outside of their influence. If you define yourself with an external locus of control, you believe other people, your environment, or a higher power controls what happens. This attitude renders you powerless to affect your own life and makes it easy to blame others and not learn from experience and take constructive action.

For sure, sometimes events really are random and out of your control, but not all the time. Knowing the difference is important. Locus of control is a fluid continuum which is ideally responsive to the situation, Consistently having an external locus of control is linked to anxiety and depression.

You can find tips on developing an internal locus of control here.

How Emotional Intelligence Improves Your Brain

Developing your emotional intelligence requires changing the pathways between the rational and emotional centers of your brain. Information from your senses enters your spinal cord and must travel to the front of your brain before you can think rationally about it. Before the signals hit your frontal lobe, they go through the limbic system, where emotions are generated. Because of this, you instinctually have an emotional reaction to something before your rational mind can engage.

To develop EI, you want to learn to pause, insert rational thinking, and respond not react emotionally. Because of neuroplasticity, the brains’ ability to alter physical form and function based on experience, when you change the way you respond, your brain changes physically and functionally over time. Once you train your brain by repeatedly using new emotional intelligence strategies, these new behaviors become the default pathways in your brain.

The Forbes article, Emotional Intelligence – EQ, explains it this way:

Using strategies to increase your emotional intelligence allows the billions of microscopic neurons lining the road between the rational and emotional centers of your brain to branch off small “arms” (much like a tree) to reach out to the other cells. A single cell can grow 15,000 connections with its neighbors. This chain reaction of growth ensures it’s easier to kick this new behavior into action in the future. Once you train your brain by repeatedly using new emotional intelligence strategies, emotionally intelligent behaviors become habits.”

How to Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Learn how to reduce stress

The ability to stay calm and level-headed is a positive attribute in all facets of life. You can become familiar with your stress triggers and reflexive responses. You can then choose healthier ways to handle and relieve stress.

Embrace your emotions

Get in the habit of checking in with yourself throughout the day and become aware of and accept your thoughts and emotions without judgment. This is a practice known as mindfulness.

Practice connecting thoughts with emotions

When you become aware of an emotion, analyze the thoughts behind it. Decide whether you presently believe the line of thinking or if it is a learned belief left over from your past and if it helps you or hurts you in the present. If it does not support you, re-evaluate and reframe the thought to consciously direct your decisions and behavior. Byron Katie has a practice, she calls The Work, which is helpful in doing this.

Become aware of your non-verbal communication

From your body language to the tone of your voice, your non-verbal communication sends loud messages, whether you’re aware of it or not. You can enhance your non-verbal communication by becoming aware of your body language, focusing on others, making eye contact, and listening before rushing to judgment or offering opinions. Find more tips on improving non-verbal communication here.

Think before you act

Learn to respond, not react. Responding engages your thinking brain as explained earlier. Reacting is instinctual. Pause and consciously think before acting. Read How To Change Your Brain From Reactive To Responsive for more information.

Take responsibility

Being an emotionally intelligent and humble person includes taking responsibility for your actions in all circumstances —  especially when mistakes happen. Apologize when you’re wrong. Disengage from arguments. Forgive others and yourself rather than holding onto pain and resentment.

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10 Comments

  1. To me, this seems to be the core of managing your life well, “They believe that they’re responsible for their lives and don’t see themselves as victims.” It’s such a fine line, between having a victim mentality and feeling empowered. I have experienced feeling like the victim at certain points in my life and now realize that it never served me well. That shift can make such a difference in how we approach life and reflects in our over attitude and well-being.

    • Good point, Cathy. I do think our EQ is fluid and depends on the situation and where we are in our life at the time.

  2. This is an excellent summary of emotional intelligence, Debbie. I especially liked learning about the internal or external locus of control. I’m definitely one who believes in developing our internal locus of control. I tend to be a very emotional person, so I could really benefit from this advice to pause first and inserts some rational thought! Thanks.

    • Thanks, Sandra. I’m glad you found it useful. I used to be overly emotional with an external locus of control. I am proof that we can learn and change! 🙂

  3. I took the test Debbie and apparently I’m ready to move into their ‘advanced curriculum’…good to know. 🙂

    The concept of response versus reaction is so important…it means to me that you are in control of your inner power and never handing it over to others. After all the one thing we do have control over, if we choose to, is our inner world of thought, beliefs, and feelings. Even if we can only establish this to a certain degree it is sure to change our life experience for the better.

  4. I especially appreciated your suggestions for “How to Develop Your Emotional Intelligence,” Debbie. And this quote offers a fantastic explanation that in turn emboldens one to make the hard efforts to change 🙂

    “The Forbes article, Emotional Intelligence – EQ, explains it this way:

    ‘Using strategies to increase your emotional intelligence allows the billions of microscopic neurons lining the road between the rational and emotional centers of your brain to branch off small “arms” (much like a tree) to reach out to the other cells. A single cell can grow 15,000 connections with its neighbors. This chain reaction of growth ensures it’s easier to kick this new behavior into action in the future. Once you train your brain by repeatedly using new emotional intelligence strategies, emotionally intelligent behaviors become habits.’”

    • Thanks, Lisa. I like that quote oo. I always want to know the science behind something. EQ is a skill we can develop, thank goodness – because I sure had to acquire it at a later age. Better late than never! 🙂

  5. Thank you for this wise advice and these tips. I especially like think before you act. I know this but sometimes forget!
    Thank you Debbie!

    • Thanks, Betsy. We all do. Sometimes, I forget to remember to be mindful and aware! 🙂

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