Just Breathe: The Connection Between Exercise and Emotional Competence

Doing something physical on a regular basis will increase your lung capacity, increase your sensations, and generally increase your emotional competence, especially if you pair it correctly with breath work.
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The other morning I was driving to work and putting on eye makeup when a professional looking man pulled up next to me at a light, rolled down his window, and gave me the finger.

"Fuck you," he said.

I crave the endorphin rush I get from exercising in the morning, and it's an effort fighting off the stress of my commute so I can hold on to that feel-good vibe for as long as possible into the workday.

"Really?" I said. "Is that what you want to say to me?"

The driver, now completely embarrassed, sped off.

We've all been in that situation where we get fired up, react too quickly, and say something we regret.

I finished applying mascara and remembered psychologist David Matsumoto's comment at a work-related training class about the role of cardiovascular exercise in achieving emotional competence. Even though the guy in the car had every right to get angry with my distracted driving, his reaction would make it difficult for our relationship to progress, if, for example, it turned out we were colleagues.

You don't have to convince me of the value of exercise or of the importance of becoming emotionally competent, but the connection between the two isn't obvious other than to say if you feel happier you tend to be nicer.

I emailed Matsumoto, known for his work in microexpressions, facial expressions, gestures, nonverbal behavior, and emotion and culture, and asked him if would expand on this idea.

A psychology professor at San Francisco State University and director of Humintell as well as an athlete himself, Matsumoto coached the 1996 USA Olympic Judo Team and was the Team Leader for the 2000 USA Olympic Judo Team.

Here's an excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Walker: What is emotional competence? And how does it differ from emotional intelligence?

David Matsumoto: I call it emotional competence but you know the sexiest label out there is emotional intelligence.

CW: Right.

DM: Anyway they refer to the same thing. I prefer the term emotional competence, which is the ability to monitor, regulate, and leverage our emotional reactions for constructive purposes.

CW: Is this one of those natural abilities people are born with, like athleticism?

DM: Certainly people are born with different levels of emotional competence. Some people are just better equipped than others. But the ability also involves skills and talents that are trainable, and that's the important part. There are ways to make you better and there are ways to get worse at it, regardless of what your natural "set point" is.

CW: Can you give an example?

DM: We could be at work and talking with a subordinate, and for some reason we get angry. The subordinate did not do what we wanted or is doing the wrong thing again despite your giving the same instructions five times. People get upset about those kinds of things.

The ability to be emotionally competent is to know that you are angry and to leverage that anger to have a constructive rather than a destructive outcome. In expressing anger people have choices. You have the choice to utilize the emotion to maximize a constructive outcome or you can ruin a relationship.

CW: Wouldn't it be easier to control your emotions so you don't get angry in the first place?

DM: Sure, but in reality that's very difficult. And, there's nothing wrong with the emotion itself. It's what you do with the emotion. It's hard to say you can't have that emotion because people have emotions, and they are immediate and automatic.

CW: Immediate and automatic?

DM: We can't always know when we're going to be emotional. And if we're going to be emotional, we have the emotion, and then we know we are emotional instead of knowing that it's going to happen.

CW: Why can't you stop an emotion before it happens?

DM: Whatever is going to trigger your emotion will trigger it so fast that it is outside conscious awareness, and by the time we're conscious about it the emotion has already started. We don't know it will happen until it's happening.

CW: What would be an example of the different ways of handling the situation of the angry boss?

DM: So your question is, how do we become more emotionally competent?

CW: That too.

DM: There are several things we can do to become emotionally competent. One is to understand the situations in which we become emotional and the specific events that trigger us to become emotional. Let's call this situational awareness.

Another approach is to know when you're emotional faster. Remember we don't know that we're emotional until we're having an emotion. Most of the time we're aware of it when we yell or scream or pound our fist on the table, or give someone the finger. It's our behavior that informs us, "I'm really angry about this."

CW: How does decreasing the time it takes for us to become aware of the emotion help?

DM: Once you're aware that you are having the emotion, you can learn skills to recover from your emotion faster so that you don't just react emotionally but incorporate goal-directed behaviors in your response.

CW: How do you do that?

DM: There are several methodologies of how to become more aware, but I think they have commonalities. It's really about being more mindful about your reactions, about what's going on with your body and mind. It's about responding, not reacting. That's where mindfulness, or metacognition, comes in. If you are more in tune with what's going on with yourself you will become aware more quickly and you will be able to better resolve issues more quickly.

CW: Isn't being situationally aware a type of mindfulness?

DM: Yes; that's mindfulness about the situation. Becoming aware of an emotion more quickly and bringing yourself to a good place is a type of mindfulness about yourself, your reactions, your feelings, your sensations, your thoughts.

CW: How do you build that kind of mindfulness?

DM: I know it sounds corny, but I'm an absolute believer that really understanding your breath and being able to train yourself to breathe better is a foundational skill for mindfulness.

CW: I'm breathing now.

DM: Most people are preoccupied constantly with the busy-ness of living, and for that reason we don't focus on the fact that we are living and the fact that we are breathing. If you look at studies of how people are actually breathing, we're just pushing air in and out of probably the top one-third or one-half of our lungs.

CW: Ok let's back up. What does learning to breathe have to do with becoming emotional competent?

DM: The whole idea is to try to sense when you are having the emotion sooner so you can have more control over your response and not just react. If you start to train your breath, you can learn to breathe more deeply and more consciously. Over time you start to feel your lung capacity get larger. You will become more in tune with all of the sensations that you have in your body. We're good at processing things with our eyes and ears, but we tune out what we're sensing, smelling, touching, because we're all focused on everything around us. When we start focusing on breathing, all of the other senses become more noticeable, including when we're having an emotion.

Once you've sensed the emotion faster, and just breathe, you build space both psychologically and physically to resolve it in your body so you can be in a better place to think through what is a better response.

CW: How can we learn to breathe better?

DM: At the beginning all you need is one minute a day. You don't even have to try to breathe; at first just notice your breath. You don't have to judge it, or evaluate it. Just notice what you're doing.

Over time you can become a better, more deliberate breather. But this takes time and practice - it's a skill that doesn't come overnight. Learning to breathe is a skill that requires a degree of devotion to oneself to improve.

CW: In class you mentioned that cardiovascular exercise is an important factor in building emotional competent.

DM: Just getting some exercise will help to increase lung capacity and make you more aware of your breathing. When people really want to improve their emotional competence you cannot separate having some degree of physical fitness as part of your self-care regimen. Physical fitness does not have to be excruciatingly painful. It can be as easy as having a walking program three times a week. But if you can get your heart rate up that's great too.

After you've done any kind of exercise, you can take five minutes to sit and focus on your breathing then. You'll feel your heart pumping and the sensations in your feet and hands. You can empty your thoughts and bring your body back to baseline.

Doing something physical on a regular basis will increase your lung capacity, increase your sensations, and generally increase your emotional competence, especially if you pair it correctly with breath work.

CW: Thank you, David, good advice for anyone.

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