Our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel providing us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: how we experience pain is exaggerated.
Positive and negative emotions also has impact on how we relate to others.
When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods, negativity, can even spread on social media.
A 2017 study, has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy.
Negative emotions can suppress our brain capacity to be sensitive to others’ pain
Participants were then shown positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner. Those who watched a negative clip and then saw clips of others in pain showed less brain activity in areas that are related to pain: the anterior insula and middle cingulate cortex. These are usually active when we see others in pain as well as when we experience pain ourselves.
Another study found that after watching a negative clip, people tended to judge a face with a neutral emotion as more negative.
These results obviously have real-world implications. If a person in power has been exposed to something negative in their lives – even something as simple as a negative movie – they could be less sensitive to others in pain and even view them more negatively. Our bad moods literally make us less receptive to others’ feelings.
Anxious and depressed patients who suffer from an excess of negative emotions are more likely to focus on their own problems and be isolated.
A lack of empathy has other implications too. Findings show that reduced empathy will result in less money donated to charity. Brain scans reveal that we also show less empathy to those who are not in our immediate social circle.
So why would negative emotions reduce empathy?
It could be that a specific type of empathy, called empathic distress, is at play. This, explains Olga Klimecki, at the University of Geneva, is “the feeling of being overwhelmed” when something bad happens to someone else, which makes you want to protect yourself instead of being overcome by negative feelings. This type of empathy even shows very different brain activation compared to typical empathy. This kind of distress might naturally also reduce compassion.
One 2016 study even found that empathic distress increases aggression. Participants were subjected to unfair scenarios and then had the chance to punish or forgive their competitors. The participants were asked to do personality tests before they came into the lab. Those who were more naturally compassionate reacted with less derogatory behaviour.
For Olga Klimecki this was telling. In her extensive research on empathy she has shown that it is possible to cultivate more compassionate behaviour. She found that feelings of compassionate empathy can be trained. Our emotional responses to others are therefore clearly not set in stone.
So next time you are in a foul mood, consider the effect it might have on the people you communicate with day-to-day.
*Emilie Qiao-Tasserit, the University of Geneva, and colleagues.
I’ve peaked . . . not in the sense I’m going downhill now . . . but rather experiencing peak performance. My first peak experience was memorable because it was a time in my life when I was the most self-conscious and questioning – a teenager in high school. I vividly remember, during a discussion, hearing my own words coming out of my own mouth, articulate, composed, effortlessly making the points I wished to make. I was peaking and flowing.
As an adult I’ve had a few times when I felt in the flow. Looking back, each time met the 5 criteria described by Hans Hagemann and Friederike Fabricius in their book “The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance”
The main points Hagemann and Fabricius describe as the basis for creating peak performance:
- Creating psychological safety
- Regulating negative emotions
- Not entering a stress state.
- Gender and age matter.
- Leaning towards rewards, not threats.
“Peaked” by Peggy
1. Psychological Safety
Hagemann emphasizes that the most important thing that underlies peak performance is psychological safety. If you are working in a climate of respect and appreciation, you can do your best.
If you are trying to perform well, using energy to inhibit negative emotions will take away from your performance. “Two systems in your brain are competing. That leads to not being focused on anything anymore.”
To regain cognitive control, recognize and ‘label’ how you feel”.
Labeling emotions by Peggy
In situations where you feel threatened, your stress response increases, which makes you physically stronger, but reduces your ability to think well.
The stress response directs blood flow to the muscles – for fight or flight – and away from your brain. The stress response says this is the time to act not deliberate and debate.
Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. That will send more oxygen to your brain and help you refocus.
3. Regulate your negative emotions
When you try to inhibit negative emotions — anger, frustration, disappointment — your rational and emotional systems compete with each other.
Name your feelings, either outloud or on paper, so your brain doesn’t have to busy itself trying to tamp down negative feelings and distract you from, consciously or unconsciously, performing well.
4. Lean towards rewards, not threats
In a “threat” state, “you get a rush of cortisol in your bloodstream – it’s that stress response making your muscles stronger, but and cutting off your cognitive thinking.
Figure out what the pay-off will be in the situation and place your focus on the reward at the end (just like athletes do). Your brain will help you “flow” toward it.
5. Gender and age matter.
Hagemann refers to a “performance profile” as the amount of intellectual arousal needed to help an individual achieve peak performance. The amount of arousal needed to be at your peak are different for different people, and maybe for the same person at different ages. The amount of intellectual arousal makes a difference between men and women, old and young. Some people are “sensation seekers,” and need a lot of arousal to hit their peak. That means they are often running on testosterone (he calls it “a very male thing”) while others can hit their peak with fewer stresses placed on them.
Both men and women have sensation seeking personality traits (like thrill rides, thrive on taking chances). If you need a lot of arousal use the stress response to your advantage. Relabel it as excitement and intently focus on the reward.
Have you ever been in “the flow”, had a “peak performance”?
What was it like for you?
“The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance” by Hans Hagemann and Friederike Fabricius