Are We Rational or Emotional Beings?

We are educated and trained to think that what differentiates us from other animals is our rational capacity. We are rational beings, they say. But will it be so?

I don’t say this lightly, but I had the opportunity to attend firsthand some meetings in which the participants, supposed leaders of departments, screamed and insulted each other.

If we are primarily rational beings, why are there times when we have reactions or actions that are not easily explained?

The explanation is found when we study the functioning of Stress.

The Stress Cycle comprises four phases, the first being Exposure to a stressor. The stressor does not have to be an external event or threat.

Many of the stressors of modern times are purely internal.

No one can convince me that a hotter meeting is a life-and-death situation.

With Exposure to the stressor, we enter the second phase, the Emotions phase. We will assign meaning to the stressor based on all the emotional baggage from our past. At that moment, our body has already been flooded with stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol increases blood pressure and releases more sugar into the bloodstream, resulting in an energy boost.

Adrenaline kicks in to stimulate the heartbeat, dilate the airways, relax secondary muscles and activate the muscles needed for action.

This phase is easy to identify. You feel your heart racing, you have cold sweats, your stomach feels in knots, your pupils dilate, your breathing is shallow and fast, and maybe you have a sudden urge to go to the toilet.

During this process, all regenerative activity of the organs is put on standby. It’s not a healthy state to be in for very long. The real danger of Stress is prolonged exposure to these hormonal states.

Faced with this rush of hormones and emotions, we are forced to make a decision. Whichever decision is taken, we enter the third phase. The Reaction Phase!

This phase is a response to emotional and hormonal overwhelm. From the first phase until now, we are talking about something almost instantaneous.

But a decision was made, let’s fight, flee or “freeze”.

And we will enter the fourth and final phase of the Stress Cycle, the phase of the Behaviour that we will assume in the face of the stressor. This is where the moments that can’t be explained often occur.

We are constantly adding to our emotional baggage.
It is interesting to note that the behaviours we assume will or will not enhance our future ability to react in a healthier way to the same stressor.

Self-awareness should be a cross-cutting theme for everyone. But it is an even more pertinent topic for those in a position to set an example, for those who are leaders of people.

Working on self-awareness allows us to understand our emotions better and why we have them at certain times. We can break the cycle and assume new reactions or behaviours with this knowledge.

When facing a stressor, our brain starts to take care of the situation automatically, not rationally. The thalamus distributes information to the neocortex and amygdala. But that information is processed slower by the neocortex. The amygdala, faster, will make us react emotionally. If we want to be more rational, it is essential to understand what is happening. Only in this way can we create mechanisms that allow us to gain time for the neocortex to do its work and show us the rationality of the stressor.

But quantifying the dimension of the disorder caused by a stressor is always a big question. Each one of us has a particular emotional baggage, the result of the socialization process and the life lived. Each of us has a duty to learn to know ourselves better and to find our own mechanisms.

What do you think, are we more emotional or rational beings?

Yours truly,
Ricardo Castelhano

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