Emotions and running away from wooly mammoths

Universal_emotions7Emotions are a strong and powerful force. Sometimes our emotions get the better of us. Sometimes they lead us to lose focus and control and respond in ways, in hindsight, we wish we hadn’t.

When my teenage son was out for the night with his friends and I’d asked him to be back in for 10 o’ clock it was remarkable how I could go from being completely chilled and mellow at 9.59 to being an absolute fire ball of annoyance at 10.01. And how, when he walked through the door at 10.03 with a jaunty ‘Hello!’, I would react, dare I say, a little negatively. But in the cold analysis of this he was only 3 minutes late! And anyone can be 3 minutes late for all sorts of reasons. So, why the extreme reaction!?

Evolutionists would argue that our emotions, and the fast responses they give us, have proved useful throughout our history. When approached by a wooly mammoth we got scared and ran away! That’s a good reaction! So when confronted with my teenage son being late I feel fear for his safety, which in turn fuels anxiety, which in turn promotes one of three things – fight, flight, or freeze. Now, in the ‘late teenage son’ example none of these are particularly helpful as the situation doesn’t need a fast, automated, response but we have such responses easily available to us… so I pick fight!

Why do we pick the easy ‘in built’ response? Well, Daniel Kahneman in his excellent book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ explains that we have two systems at play in our brain. Our automated ‘quick response’ brain and our slower more ponderous brain. He explains in much more depth, and with much more eloquence, that we are generally lazy when it comes to thinking and when we have a quick response available to us we have a tendency to go for that response rather than having to engage our more thoughtful and slower brain. Because to engage that part of our brain is frankly hard work!

So, as Howe (2008) tells us despite our emotional reactions lacking subtlety they are emotionsquick and powerful and provide us with a range of possible immediate responses to situations we find ourselves in. Some of which are useful, especially when things like safety are being compromised, but some of which are less so when a better response would have been a more thought through one.

Howe (2008) lays out the positives of these rather automated responses. He states they are tried and tested solutions to the problems we all face. When lost, physically rather than metaphorically (!) we experience fear and that fear drives us to take stock quickly of the circumstances so we can be ‘found’ again. The emotion makes us focus on the task at hand quickly until it is dealt with, at which point, hopefully, the emotions will subside.

He also suggests that emotions help us explore situations quickly that are too important to leave to intellect alone. When out on a home visit and confronted by a large angry dog growling and snarling and approaching you you want something inside you to say ‘run’ rather than to stand there and think ‘well let’s consider my options’. ‘What will the person who loves their dog think of me?’ ‘How deep would the bite be, and therefore how much at risk am I really?’ ‘Will the owner intervene… oh I’m sure they will, I would?’ No! There’s not time! Run! And figure the rest out when you’re safe!

The core of an emotion, like in the example just given, is a readiness to act and to formulate plans. You need to give a sense of urgency to your actions with regard to the advancing dog so in a few moments you will plan what to do, as your emotions will demand it of you. You will not consider how this might impact future relationships, or what it will mean for the end date of the assessment, or whether you will need to inform the home support staff you commission! You will consider ‘how can I get to a position where I don’t feel terrified anymore!’ And that’s fine!

mammoth-2512585_960_720One of the problems with the modern world though is these in built, almost animal like, gut instinct responses, work for wooly mammoths and advancing dogs but don’t work so well for situations where the threat is not as obvious and the solution not as instant. You might feel anxious and scared when you look at your diary for the week, or you might feel fear and distress when you see you have a visit to a particularly challenging family – but you can’t run from these things. It’s unlikely you can use a ‘flight’ response given you’d like to get paid at the end of the month but you may feel like engaging in a ‘freeze’ response or a ‘fight’ one when your manager gives you another task. Neither of which in the long run are helpful.

The emotions you are feeling in such moments will ‘flavour’ your responses in other situations as they present themselves. Unless of course you manage the emotion in some way so that you can use your emotional responses to drive you positively rather than letting them have a negative impact.

Here’s a ‘low-level’ example. I was driving to work recently and there was a broken down car up ahead. I was already a little late and this was going to make me even later. I started to get anxious and angry because I left some prep till the last minute for a 9 o’clock lecture and now I wasn’t going to get to work until 8.30. This would mean the usual things I’d do on a morning would not get done. And if you know me you know I love my routine. I started feeling tense. So I engaged in some planning! I figured that when I got to work I wouldn’t even turn my computer on. I’d grab the printed copy of the slides, grab a coffee, and spend the small amount of time running through what I had. I used the negative way I was feeling to drive me to plan rather than just living in the angry, frustrated, moment. And it worked. I had a plan so felt myself relaxing and felt the negativity disappear. Now I know some of the issues we face in practice are bigger than this example but the idea still works.

This type of approach is not easy but it comes with practice and certainly relies on being self aware. You have to be able to know your emotions, know what triggers strong feelings in you and plan for how to deal with them rather than leaving your reactions to chance. This is born out of experience. In a sense ‘forged in the fire’ of practice. But you can start to develop an understanding of yourself by considering your strengths and weaknesses in relation to emotional responses. You can think about your values and what’s important to you ….and dare I suggest looking after yourself should be just as important as the service users you work with or the timescales you work to. Figuring all of this out will give you a sense of self regulation and an ability to control or redirect disruptive emotions to emerging circumstances.

Emotional intelligence is about managing your emotions but also about managing the emotions of others. I’m convinced as social workers you will have the skills to do this. In showing people empathy you will show you understand, as far as you ever can, how they are feeling and may be able to help them move in a desirable direction

The social work task is to work with people who are often in an emotional state. Just the presence of you as a social worker will bring some emotions ‘to the table’. It’s your job to create a safe space to explore those emotions. People’s idea of self, as we’ve seen elsewhere, is formed in the relationships they have and in their interactions with others. People with problems may have their sense of self undermined so need to return to a supportive relationship with someone to explore who they are. This is done by you engaging with them in a warm and sincere relationship.

You’ll need to make the person feel comfortable and this may take time. But you will also need to feel comfortable yourself. Not be distracted or rushing to get through the appointment. Being ‘in the moment’ with the person will show you are available to them, not just physically present, but also emotionally and psychologically present. This will develop an encouraging relationship and a safe environment where the service user can explore themselves and hopefully come up with their own solutions and way forward.

Howe (2008) says that once this relationship connection is made ‘the self of the service user can form and re-form. The social worker is like the sculptor who frees the sculpted form from the marble; the worker recognises the potential of the client and enables him or her to realise that potential’ (Howe, 2008, p.186)

Howe, D., (2008) The Emotionally Intelligent Social Worker
Kahneman, D., (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow


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