There is a great deal we can do to cope well in situations which we find (or expect to find) difficult.
To see how the brain works in this context, it is useful to have a close look at the cycle of emotional arousal. This shows how negative emotional arousal can generate unhelpful thoughts, which themselves fuel further negative emotions. Knowing how the cycle works then informs us as to how best to make changes in that situation and so improves the way we cope.
The Human Givens School of Psychology uses the APET model. This is what APET stands for:
A: Activating stimulus (e.g. being part of a meeting or even just imagining being in a meeting).
P: Pattern-matching - the automatic match of that stimulus to instinctive or learned patterns in the brain. This happens in a thousandth of a second (e.g. similar perhaps to another meeting we had in the past where we felt anxious).
E: Emotional Arousal - the emotion generated by the pattern match which can be either positive or negative (e.g. the negative emotion of fear and loss of confidence).
T: (unhelpful) Thoughts and beliefs - these are emotionally coloured thoughts (e.g. They will all think I’m stupid – these emotional thoughts can themselves make things even worse by acting as another activating stimulus, generating even higher emotional arousal that potentially makes our distress unnecessarily greater).
So, at what points can we intervene to cope better here? There are a number of different points, and I am going to illustrate them by carrying through the same example of that dreaded meeting.
A: Not going to the meeting is unlikely to be an option, so there is probably nothing that can be done at this level. Not going might seem to be the best solution, but if this is purely a safety behaviour (i.e. avoiding the subject of the fear), then this will simply store up more dread the next time around and will both undermine confidence and increase background stress.
P: Is the pattern match actually appropriate? Often our brain makes faulty pattern matches (after all, pattern matching is very crude and rough and ready because it’s happening in a thousandth of a second). Perhaps we can reframe the match? If we can halt the emotional roller-coaster, then we can bring our full higher intelligence to see this meeting in context. In order to do this, however, halting the emotional arousal is necessary first. This brings us to the next aspect.
E: There are many ways to calm the emotional brain. Try diaphragmatic breathing (always ensuring the out breath is longer than the in breath), physical exercise (even a short walk will help clear the mind) and advance mental rehearsal of the meeting going well and of feeling calm in that situation. All these will help.
T: When we are calm, we can challenge any unhelpful thoughts or beliefs which have been generated by negative emotional arousal and see things more clearly and with better perspective. If we know the type of unhelpful thoughts or beliefs which usually come up in similar situations, we can work with them in advance using our thinking brain. The thinking brain can then feed a new and more balanced pattern of thought or belief back to the emotional brain. The thought/belief that “They will all think I’m stupid” can then become something along the lines of “The last meeting did not go as well as I had wanted, but this time I can be better prepared. I know more of what is expected of me, and actually, last time I survived reasonably well. There is no reason why I shouldn’t come over well this time and learn from anything which doesn’t go quite the way I wanted.”
The skill of challenging inappropriate pattern matches and unhelpful thoughts and beliefs is a really important part of improving the way we cope and also helps build confidence. However, this cannot be done to best effect unless we have first buttoned down the skill of calming the emotional brain so we can access our higher intelligence. Practice makes perfect, so enjoy practising and making these skills your own!