How to Handle Bad News Better

What neuroscience research says about stress and gratitude

Pause for a moment and imagine that you’re sitting in your boss’ office. He’s behind his desk and you’re in one of those smaller, more uncomfortable “guest” chairs. Your boss is staring at his computer screen and mumbling something about your employee file. After an awkward length of time, he finally breaks his gaze from the screen and turns to face you. You can see it in his face, this isn’t going to be good news… but how bad is it? That’s when the Human Resources rep walks in. 

Your boss starts the conversation the way most managers are coached – the hard stuff first. You just lost your job. Canned. Fired. Laid off. Let go. Whatever you want to call it, it just happened.

As your boss and the HR rep are explaining your severance package, health benefits, career counseling and other really important next steps, your mind is swirling and you’re just nodding your head lazily, staring out the window. The world seems to have lost its color. The sound of cars honking their horns in the street has amplified as if they were right outside the window, but the voices in the office seem to be coming from a very distant place.

Your mind races from thoughts of loss and despair to anger and vengeance. You struggle to find your footing and muster a rational response to your boss, but the words get jumbled up as they come out of your mouth. Which is the strangest thing, because usually you’re a very level-headed person. You tell yourself “I should be able to handle this situation, get it together!

Why It’s Hard to Be Rational When Responding to Bad News

Some form of that situation occurs hundreds of times a day around the world. At times, even the most rational people you know find their mental prowess strained in such a circumstance. But how is that some people are better at this than others? Is this a skill we can improve?

Your brain receives sensory information from your eyes, ears, and other organs through your nervous system. As your ears are handling the syllables of your boss’ words and the tone of his voice, your eyes are picking up cues from his body language and facial expression all at the same time.

Your brain works to compile this information into something rational and sensible, but it all becomes tangled up in your limbic system (your emotional center). That’s why your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, your stomach begins to ache or your palms sweat – all typical physical responses to the emotional sensation of stress.

Although your best thinking happens in the frontal lobe of the brain, the stimuli have to pass through the emotional center to get there. As the stimuli pass through the limbic system, they set off emotional bells and whistles that can seriously handicap your frontal lobe’s ability to process things thoroughly. While the anger and sorrow that are swirling in your mind are not necessarily unjustified, they’re not helping you think on your feet either.

Handling Bad News Better

Suppressing emotions and saying “get over it” isn’t the answer. You have to work through what you’re feeling by raising your level of self-awareness.

Emotions are not there simply for us to feel them, they are designed to be a signal that tells us something. The way you feel when a man steps out of a dark alley right in front of you, that’s your brain snapping your attention in place as a self-preservation mechanism. Whether the man is a serial killer or not doesn’t dictate the fight or flight response – our instinct for survival does. Knowing why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling is the first step to improving your ability to handle bad news better.

As you consider the emotions you’re experiencing, don’t do what most people do and lump them into piles of good versus bad. When we hastily judge and label our emotions we heap more emotion on top of the pile. For example, if you feel guilty because you snapped at your spouse, getting mad and beating yourself up about it doesn’t really help. The purpose of that emotion is to tell us something, and in this case it’s probably signaling that we’re not living up to our own standard of a good spouse.

Learning to suspend a positive or negative judgment of an emotion is something that takes practice, but it can be improved upon. The goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of the labels we put on emotions so that we can quickly move from the emotional center to the frontal lobe.

When All Else Fails, Practice Gratitude

Scientifically proven to help people get through depressing situations, gratitude exercises are free and can be done anywhere.

You know the anti-depressant Wellbutrin that boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine? Gratitude does the same thing. How about the anti-depressant Prozac that boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin? Gratitude does the same thing.

According to The Upward Spiral (book) “The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine… [another] powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.

The coolest part about exercising gratitude? You don’t have to actually find anything to be grateful for in order for it to work. Simply looking for something to be grateful for does the trick. Again from The Upward Spiral – “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.

Here’s a fun fact: most people reading this article didn’t make it this far, so if you’re still with me – kudos. You’re one of the few who really cares about continuous education/learning. Personal growth is a choice, and when you choose to do it intentionally (because you only get one chance at life) who knows what you can accomplish. Not convinced that you’re the type of person who can learn something new or improve your skills? Check out the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, it’s FULL of mind-blowing studies that exemplify the human capacity for improving one’s own life; I highly recommend it.

Question for you... What’s your favorite way to practice gratitude? Is it easy for you to do? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook / LinkedIn / Twitter

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