Emotional plasticity: using emotions to adapt to challenges

Emotional plasticity: using emotions to adapt to challenges

There is no doubt that, among all the mental capacities that distinguish us from other animals, that of thinking in abstract terms and representing complicated ideas through words is one of the most incredible.

However, something even more incredible is that we don’t just use these abstract concepts to name what surrounds us. We are also able to think about how we think and how we feel . We may be part of the only species.

What happens is that we take this fact for granted and do not stop to examine the potential it has, its implications. That is why few people are familiar with emotional plasticity , our ability to adapt to each situation through emotions and feelings.

What is emotional plasticity?

Emotional plasticity is our ability not to limit ourselves to experiencing emotional states passively, but to make them part of our strategies for adapting to the challenges of everyday life.

We must bear in mind that neither emotions nor feelings exist simply to enrich our subjective experience of what it is to live. They are there because they fulfill a function: to guide our behavior towards objectives that are usually convenient for us at each moment.

For example, the mixture of fear and stress that we often experience hours before an exam will make it more likely that we will be reviewing knowledge, which under normal conditions would be an unattractive effort. Emotions drive us to action, whether we realize it or not. The question is… do we take advantage of it?

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Learning to adapt to the environment

The concept of emotional plasticity is derived from another one that comes from neuroscience, neuronal plasticity. The latter process has to do with the way in which these nerve cells “learn” to connect with each other following patterns that are useful to us under certain circumstances.

For example, when we learn to read certain neurons that are activated when a part of the arm is in a certain position, they begin to associate more effectively with those that are activated when a part of the chest is in the position that facilitates that movement.

Similarly, it has been seen that in many patients who have suffered injuries to the brain, the healthy parts learn to perform the functions that were performed by the damaged or missing neural tissues. There are even people who, despite being born without large portions of their brains, develop and live relatively normally.

Thus, human beings can use emotions as supports, resources to guide our actions effectively. Although we tend to think that rationality brings us closer to the objectives and that it is the emotions and feelings that distance us from them (as obstacles or elements that distract us from what is important), this does not have to be the case.

Some useful strategies

Below are some examples of how you can take advantage of emotional plasticity.

1. Direction of completion

We humans tend to feel much better when we feel that we have accomplished a goal. However, each of these goals can be broken down into small milestones, steps that need to be taken.

So when you see that you are faced with a task so complicated and long that it is intimidating, break it down into small sub-targets, each of which can be completed in an hour or less. In this way you “force” yourself to fulfill those small assumable goals so that you can feel good when you have reached the end of each one of them.

2. Empathy to connect

Meeting new people can be intimidating and complicated, but those cold moments at the beginning of a conversation with strangers can pass quickly if we send the right signals to allow for empathy.

Telling a short story that is interesting and talks about how we are and how we feel , for example, often serves to engage others in stimulating dialogues in which everyone speaks honestly. But make sure that the subject of the mini story is relevant.

3.Create narratives to understand things better

There are many things that although they are boring, we need to study them and learn them. To make it easier to study, make up stories that contain that relevant information. This is an example of emotional plasticity because our tendency to empathise can make us interested in the experiences of the fictional characters in these stories, memorising the data related to these stories more easily.

4. Forms of resilience

Resilience is our capacity to recover psychologically after going through crises or tragedies . Although it may not seem so, this almost always involves forms of emotional plasticity.

Just focus on those goals that you associate with the feeling of building something useful. The desire to progress and the satisfaction that comes from moving towards a goal will stop us from obsessing about problems (to some extent, artificial ones) that used to frighten us and tie us to the past.

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