Cool under pressure
Life is full of things that make us afraid, stress us out or make us anxious. What causes us to lose "our cool" varies from person to person but apparently fear of public speaking ranks above fear of death for many of us. That led some comedian to suggests that at a funeral, you would rather be the person inside the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.
We all experience emotions as part of the roller coaster of life. We hope that the emotions we experience involve more "ups than downs" but actually wouldn't it be great if we could somehow experience the emotions OK but at the same time level out the fear when that turns up and enjoy the highs a bit more. The first step in being able to stay cool under pressure is to have a better understanding of what emotions are and what triggers them.
What are emotions?
There is a common sense view that emotion is totally separate from (thinking) cognition. However this is wrong. Cognition is integral to the generation and regulation of emotion.
The process of generating an emotion starts when we are presented with various types of stimuli in a situation. Suppose you are public speaking - the stimuli include the environment you are in, the audience and the actions they are taking (fidgeting, taking notes, chating, looking bored and so on) What happens is we tend to use selective attention to take in only certain aspects of the situation; you might notice the couple talking or the person on the front row looking bored. In the crucial next step you are probably going to appraise the meaning of that bored person in terms of your personal wants, needs and goals. Can you imagine hallucinating that they look bored because of what you were saying when in actual fact it was more to do with the fact that they got very little sleep last night? How you interpret the situation has a big impact on what happens next. If you choose to feel that this person is bored because of what you said a response is triggered that changes your personal experience - you might feel afraid (you are not worthy) which affects your behaviour (maybe you freeze and forget what you were going to say) and your physiology changes (palms start to sweat).
The brain systems responsible for appraising "threats" and for emotional response are the Amygdala and the Insula.
The amygdala is an ancient structure in the evolution of mankind and it's function is to detect stimuli that have some natural or learned significance - especially stimuli that might be threatening.
The insula is the cortical region underneath the frontal and temporal lobes and has a role to play especially with negative emotions that have a strong bodily component to them (for example disgust). The insula has a viscerotopic map of what is going on in the internal organs and how that changes when you are responding emotionally.
Emotions are not things that just start and stop. They are continuously generated by a cyclical process that is constantly taking place. Emotions as we have alluded to above can be influenced by input stimuli and also by our own response to a situation. Our response and behaviour changes the events in the world - that then influences our response and so it goes on. In the public speaking scenario we described earlier, imagine that your response to seeing the bored person was to stop speaking and run out of the room. All the stimuli you perceive would certainly change and it would certainly have an impact on the audience.
Every action we take can change what we are attending to, how we are appraising a situation, how we are responding and so on. Our emotional responses are, if you like, continuously updated expressions of the personal meaning we are drawing from the current environment.
In the next article we look at some ways to regulate our emotional response.