What state are you in?
I’ve been thinking about state, the phenomenon we often call “state of mind”.
It’s interesting that we often talk about state in a negative sense. We describe someone who’s particularly agitated or anxious as being “in a state” or we ask, “What state are they in?” when someone’s been through a trying experience or worse for wear after a night out.
However, we’re always in a state, whether that’s relaxed or frustrated, anxious or excited. It’s a bit like having our own weather system. We might wake up and feel like the clouds have moved in, then feel brighter later. Our state might change from hour to hour, or settle in for days.
The good news is that, unlike the weather which we can’t do much about – human factors in climate change notwithstanding – we can influence our state.
When our mind misleads us
The term “state of mind” is misleading. How we think, feel and perceive things is actually a result of a whole load of activity going inside our bodies as it responds to the world around us.
There’s fascinating research in neuroscience showing how the way we feel is actually something our brains guess based on internal signals from our body. It would be overwhelming for us to be aware of every heartbeat and gurgle and sensation in our body so evolution has turned down the noise for us and created a shortcut.
However, this also means that our ability to know what’s going on in our bodies – known as interoception – for example, how fast our heartbeat is – is actually quite poor.
For example, a common mistake is that we think we’re angry or out of sorts when we’re just tired or hungry. There’s even a word for the latter – hangry! I have a fragile relationship with sleep. When I’m tired, I’m prone to negative thoughts and I have to remember that what I’m worried about tends to pale into insignificance when I have a decent night’s sleep.
The shape of you
Another important thing to call out here is that the shape of our body impacts how we feel and therefore what we think – as well as vice versa. Try feeling confident and enthusiastic when you’re slumped at your desk and you haven’t moved all day.
Notice what happens when you stand or sit upright, open your chest and take some breaths. Or, even better, when you get outside for some exercise.
Our emotions are contagious
The bottom line is that our state impacts how we show up, how we behave and therefore how people experience us. The nature of our evolution also means that we mirror and echo the emotions of others.
So if you’re feeling agitated, chances are your colleagues will feel it too. This is relevant for all of us and, if you’re in a leadership role where people are looking to you, it’s even more important.
How to change your state for the better
What’s interesting is that, the better we are recognising our physiological state, the more we can regulate it. It’s not always possible to access a more resourceful state – for example, when you’re ill or subject to hormone fluctuations – but we often have more agency than we think we do.
When you’re next feeling out of sorts, try these strategies :
Tune in to your body.
First, check if there’s no more sinister a reason than a purely physical one : feeling tired, hungry or needing to go to the loo! Then scan your body for clues : What’s your posture like? Are you holding tension, for example in your neck and shoulders? Where’s your breath? Becoming aware may be enough for you to make adjustments that help.
If you’re feeling agitated or restless, go for a walk or some sort of exercise. Getting breathless has the effect of shifting cortisol from our system and making us feel more relaxed afterwards. If you can’t get away from your desk, stand up, stretch and slow and deepen your breathing.
If you’re feeling anxious, frustrated or angry, what’s that about? What are the thoughts you’re having? Are they helpful or unhelpful? Could you reframe how you’re seeing the situation?
I had some unsolicited advice the other day that caused me to bristle. I was thinking, “How dare they tell me what to do – it’s none of their business!” After having a talk with myself, I decided that they were just trying to help, it really wasn’t worth getting in a state about and I needed to let it go.
We make our emotions
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett sums it up : “Emotions that seem to happen to you are actually made by you”. In other words, we construct our emotions – our own weather system – and we can reconstruct them.
What’s the weather forecast for you today?
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.