By: Shaila Anjum
It’s a new year and for many that means a fresh start and a new beginning. For others, it’s another day to work just as hard as the previous. Whichever category you fall in, there is always room for self-improvement. If this is the new year and a new you, then start here! If this is just another year and you’re looking to keep building on yourself, then start here! This week’s article is about recognition and self-awareness.
The key to change and the key to improvement is recognizing the need or want to do so. It is so much easier said than done, no doubt, but with a few key tips, I will try to help you recognize patterns about yourself that you can tweak or change to improve your overall lifestyle, happiness and mood. Learning how to recognize and read yourself better is helpful for individuals dealing with anxiety, ADHD, socioeconomic related problems, family issues, environmental, home and school stressors. We have all come across such stressors or problems in our life at least once and probably will continue to face some level of difficult situations throughout life. Recognizing your reactions and understanding how to manipulate them willfully puts you in the driver’s seat of your emotions and behaviours and in turn allows you to take control of situations that you may often feel hopeless in otherwise. This is not to say these low or anxiety provoking situations will no longer occur, but that you will allow yourself to be resilient and bounce back at a much faster and effective rate.
Our physiological reactions to situations that are not ideal or are stressful is often reflected in the fight or flight response. Fight or flight response is our sympathetic nervous system at work when situations make us nervous or anxious (Harvard Medical School, 2011). This does not necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder, it just simply means you're human. Have you ever been in a situation where something made you nervous the first time you tried it, but now you cannot wait to get started? For example, the first time I tried horse-back riding or stepped into a gym, I was outside of my comfort zone and my physiological responses were to sweat more than usual and an elevated heart rate. In some situations, like being with a crush or a significant other and having a conversation that makes you feel vulnerable may also have physiological responses such as excessive sweat in the palms, underarms or soles of your feet and an elevated heart rate. These are all normal responses to the above scenarios for many people. The problem arises when people try to avoid putting themselves in scenarios they have learned will elicit these physiological responses in attempt to stay in a comfort zone. There is nothing wrong with comfort except when it keeps you in a bubble and away from trying new things and pushing for personal growth. The parasympathetic nervous system helps come down from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system to stressors by bringing your respiratory rate and heart rate back to normal along with any other physiological imbalances caused during the flight or fight response (Harvard Medical School, 2011). Why is this information important to understand? It’s important to understand because knowing how it all works can allow for us to attempt at willfully activating those neurons in your parasympathetic nervous system to help bring you the calm before the panic increases. Some of this has to do with practicing relaxation techniques.
Relaxation can occur in several ways. It can be taking time out to do nothing and just sit, watch television or take a nap – especially if you tend to have a busy schedule and find yourself constantly running from one thing to another. Relaxation can mean self-care such as getting a massage, doing your nails, going for a run or jog or reading a book, and watching your youtube mentors or listening to their podcasts. All is important and healthy as long as you pace yourself. Sometimes we need a more immediate release from panic. Breathing exercises should be practiced more frequently as they have proved to be quite beneficial. There is an app called ‘Stop, Breathe and Think’ which allows you to follow a structured approach to mindfulness and take a break from stressors. Sometimes simply thinking of doing a breathing exercise doesn’t cut it when you’re too busy panicking and technology has allowed for there to be several tools at our disposal to ease our panic during rough times.
Above all, the purpose of this article is to recognize symptoms as they happen in order to gain a better control over them. Dr. Handler speaks about taking your emotional temperature (2018). She defines this as probing yourself by asking yourself questions like “What feeling(s) am I aware of having? What is the most prominent?”, “When did you become aware of this feeling?” She suggests one should not shy away from pushing forward and asking further questions especially if some answers are broad like ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ should be probed to define what that exactly means. Dr. Handler suggests being thorough is the key to “take you to different places – perhaps ones you haven’t traveled before” and these are the places you want to go if you wish to gain a better understanding of how your subconscious brain or your body and mind work together to elicit certain reactions. She also suggests specifying the stressors that cause certain feelings and emotions. The reason why we sometimes don’t see behaviours to be problematic is because we don’t realize how others may see them. Dr. Handler also suggests examining your behaviour to understand associated emotions you feel or the people around you feel. Some questions you can ask to evaluate your behaviour may be “How is my home life? Am I getting along with my partner? My children? My parents and siblings? How am I doing at work? Am I enjoying my work?” Then you can move onto how these behaviours make you and the people around you feel, as mentioned earlier.
These exercises can help increase your emotional intelligence which is defined by "...the ability to: Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions. Recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others” (Cherry, 2018). Psychologists Dr. Salovey and Dr. Mayer, those who originally published an article with the term emotional intelligence or EI with a breakdown of the steps to increasing emotional intelligence: listen, empathize, and reflect (1990). For those interested in reading more on how to increase your emotional intelligence, there is a link to Dr. Salovey and Dr. Mayer’s paper and Kendra Cherry’s summary of the article in the references below.
To conclude, we have talked about the importance of self-awareness, how our physiology connects to our psyche, importance of relaxation and types of relaxation, exercises to recognize and understand emotions and behaviours, and the role emotional intelligence plays in tying all of this together to allow for a greater sense of self-awareness.
Did you check your emotional temperature today? I did, and there certainly is always room for self-improvement! 😊
Cherry, K. (2018). Overview of emotional intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-intelligence-2795423
Handler, J. C. (2018). Identifying your feelings. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/art-and-science/201801/identifying-your-feelings
Harvard Medical School. (March 2011). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Mayer, J. D. & Salovey, P. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.385.4383&rep=rep1&type=pdf