The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded

Imagine it: your face flushes red, your shoulders tense, your skin prickles and your stomach sinks. Stress, anxiety, anger – it’s your body’s fight or flight response.

When we’re young these emotions are all-consuming and lead to regular emotional breakdown. As we get older, we gain an increasing ability to separate ourselves from the emotion – to see that it is temporary, to slightly detach from it and explore it with some curiosity.

Both as a teacher and an organisation leader, this ability has been completely critical. When I’ve allowed emotions to go unchecked then I’ve compromised my abilities to control classes and dealt badly with meetings. Stress reactions spiral out of control, they are exhausting and destructive.

When we are stressed a number of effects occur:

  • We zoom in on the stress – our attention is drawn closely to the stimulus that is causing us anxiety or anger. This might be the person who is being threatening or the particular thought going around our head that is worrying us. Other things around us and other thoughts recede into the background. We lose sight of the bigger picture, losing perspective and becoming, quite literally, narrow minded. Conversely, but also harmfully, we are also much more easily distracted, finding it harder to filter stimuli and thoughts that are irrelevant to our goal. This is a particular problem if the source of stress is not the thing we’re supposed to be focusing on – e.g. trying to engage in a calm, thoughtful conversation after an emotionally stressful event.
  • We are more likely to be aggressive (the fight response) and competitive or alternative we may feel compelled to withdraw – physically or emotionally. We are less likely to think things through calmly and logically. Our decision-making is more haphazard and more likely to be sub-optimal.
  • Due to paying attention much more selectively, we are likely to form narrower memories from the event which focus on the emotional content and the stressful stimulus – we will remember different things differently to someone who was calm. We are much less effective at tasks that require integrating different inputs or ideas – processes and tasks requiring divided attention or focus is impaired. More generally, our working memory is impaired. Not only makes this harder to think about the current situation, this also impairs retrieval of past events
  • Our risk-taking behaviour is modified. On average, we all tend to be more keen to pursue reward with less avoidance of possible negative outcomes. However, stress also amplifies gender differences. On average, men’s risk-taking is ramped up much more strongly than women’s.
  • We are less likely to take a team perspective in groups, leading to lower performance as a team more generally.

All of this is pretty disastrous if you are trying to remain calm in the face of a class that needs calm authority, or a stressful meeting which requires strategic decision-making and careful person-management.

So, what’s to be done? I personally use a few key principles. Apologies if they sound a little fluffy or odd, but they seem to work for me!

  1. Practice noticing your own emotions. Get used to spotting the first flush of adrenaline and making a note that you are getting an emotional reaction. Check your mental state and the tension in your muscles at regular intervals to see how tense or stressed you are feeling. This is the vital first step in dealing with the emotion and detaching yourself from it.
  2. Allow the emotion to subside and pass. Take a moment to pause. Drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Slow your rate of speaking.
  3. Also notice the emotional state of others. Spot when they go red, look for tension in their faces, particularly around the eyes. Remember that it is temporary. Recognise that it may cause an empathy reaction in you and look for this.
  4. Most importantly, zoom out and see this is as a small and possibly even helpful emotional blip in a successful extended process. Emotion can lead to opening up, and to learning. Think of the big picture and the long game. Use the words curiosity and design to trigger calmer, more logical thoughts, more detached, giving yourself space to see wider solutions.

Outside of the stressful episodes you need to try and encourage yourself to be better at coping. Practice noticing your emotional state regularly. Ensure you get enough sleep. Even one late night can have knock on effects for the rest of the week. Sleep deprivation makes you emotionally less resilient, less able to detach, more liable to stress. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. I personally find mindfulness techniques help me both with the noticing of my emotional state as well as helping to put aside nagging or stressful thoughts, though I don’t have the patience to practice at all regularly.

What works for you? Am I missing some techniques or ideas? I’m keen to learn from you, please do leave a comment.

8 Replies to “The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded”

  1. I have found Kelly McGonigal’s “The Upside of Stress” really helpful. She defines stress as “what happens when something you value is at stake”, and recommends separating the cause of stress from the stress-response. The former is generally more toxic than the latter. Focusing on “dealing with stress” or “coping with stress” can turn us away from the very resources we need to take action. It’s not coincidental that the same Dept of Education that’s putting ever more pressure on teachers has taken to pushing well-being workshops at us at the same time.
    It’s interesting you find mindfulness helpful, and agree it is about being able to acknowledge emotions without being overwhelmed by them. No colouring-books in sight. As for sleep, I find it crucial; so much so my term-time social life is almost entirely confined to weekends.

  2. Also important to say how you are feeling without having to act it out. Poker face is okay in some situations but there is also massive scope for growth for all parties when you can articulate the feelings clearly. So, it’s fine to say calmly and clearly in a meeting “I find myself feeling quite angry about this decision. I think I need more time to understand why this is”. Or “I think I am picking up that you are angry about this decision, can you tell us more about what’s happening for you here?”

    Same in the classroom. “I am finding your behaviour really frustrating at the moment.”

  3. We all have emotions including children. The same skills that adults benefit from also apply to children, and can be taught at home from a young age. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote How to Talk so Kids Listen which has been useful to my experience at home (they run workshops in school settings but I have not experience of these).

    I think you have explained emotional management very well here. It requires awareness and responsiveness (stillness is a response). Ideally, an individual will manage their own emotions. But although emotional responses are natural, dealing with them is a skill. An adult or child may not have the awareness and/or skills to do this in a particular moment or at all. When this happens they can benefit from the kindness of a calm individual managing the moment.

    A taoist counsellor we know explains emotions as only lasting for 40 seconds; it is a choice to extend that feeling. Emotions are signposts and indicate a thought to be explored – something that we react to/against. It doesn’t need to take long and shouldn’t encourage dwelling on negative feelings.

    The 40 second idea helps our children to realise they can let the feeling go. We also encourage the children to visualise holding an invisible ball as a symbol of their emotion. To hold it lightly requires them to release physical tension. As you note, the point is to a return to point of calm reasoning.

    It works for my two. I don’t know how much is nature and how much nurture. At parents’ evening a couple of weeks ago the feedback we had from a member of staff was that his emotional maturity is years above his age.

    I think the school setting when a child is dealing with a difficult day/peers may not be very obvious to a school. Children quickly learn to bottle their emotions at school, then come home and ‘release’ with the day’s emotion (more lessons – how to release it calmly; the next, how to avoid it building up at school and to come home and talk about it). The lack of human touch during a school day is tough for children and it remains interesting to me how their need for human touch at home differs during holidays and term time.

    My approach uses the authoritative approach as part of attachment parenting that I found through La Leche League, Dr Sears, Faber & Mazlish. It’s evolving through each development stage – we’re human so you can assume we have and continue to make mistakes along the way as we parent. ;).

    This is useful following Cameron’s parenting 101 drive: Permissive/Authoritarian/Authoritative/Neglectful parenting. (

    Hope it is of some use.

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