Emotional Intelligence and Stress Management

by Ciprian Paraschiv on 4th April, 2016


Why is emotional intelligence (EQ) so widespread in the business language today? Grounded in neuroscience, EQ brings great answers to questions we usually approach empirically:
How can we enhance our emotional, physical, spiritual and mental strengths?

Today I will focus on stress management and it’s relations to EQ. Why management and not stress removal? Because as you may already be aware of, stress is not always a bad thing.

While chronic stress accounts for a low life expectancy and is related to many cardiovascular diseases, EQ competencies can be used to harness stress and blow off its long term undesired effects. Just as our body has a stress response, we also have a relaxation response.

The sympathetic nervous system and the mechanism of chronic stress

To better understand what happens to our bodies during periods of stress, we should get a glimpse of what our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are. These are the parts of our nervous system dealing with the involuntary regulation of our internal body. Both control the same body functions, but they have opposite effects.

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sustained physical effort, often referred to as “fight or flight response”. Animal glands release stress hormones in dangerous situations, helping them to react appropriately.

A similar response happens in our body when we must overcome a challenge. Our heart is pounding faster, preparing us for action. We also breathe faster, allowing our brain to oxygenate better. When we do something challenging, and we meet the expected outcomes, we end up exalted. That’s good stress!

But building up chronic annoying stress might have a dreadful impact. Our body was not designed for it.

When the sympathetic nervous system is active, our body starts to secrete, among others, three hormones: Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, and Cortisol.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are both acting as vasoconstrictors, raising our blood pressure. One is pulling blood from the extremities of our body to your arm muscles so you can fight. The other does the same to our legs, so we can guess what? … run if we have to.

The other hormone released during stress is Cortisol. Our body needs it, as it is a natural anti-inflammatory and also helps to create energy by converting fat cells to glucose.

But Cortisol also has two harmful effects on our body.

  • It almost shuts down your immune system
  • It almost stops neurogenesis, the growth of new neural tissue

The cumulated effect of stress on a long run grows the incidence of heart attacks and bacterial infection.

The mechanisms of body renewal

There is another way around your body uses to fight back stress through your parasympathetic nervous system. When you manage to calm down and get in control of a stressful situation, the body releases another hormone: oxytocin. Its actions are opposite: your blood vessels relax, extremities are getting warmer, your pulse is lowering. Your breathing gets deeper and the result is that you’re getting more lifted, more exultant. Also, during parasympathetic activation, neurogenesis occurs. In many aspects, your body turns into its renewal state.

Richard Boyatzis, coauthor with Daniel Goleman on “Primal Leadership”, took a deep look into this mechanism, and at every measure done he observed that when you manage to leverage stress in your favor you are getting at your best: perceptually, cognitively, emotionally.

In a thought-provoking TED talk, Kelly McGonigal from the Dept. of Psychology at Stanford University, tells us about a scientific research done on 30 000 adults that made her rethink everything she knew about stress. People were asked if they suffered from stress and if they believe stress is harmful to their health.

Those who said they’re under stress but didn’t consider it harmful had, in fact, the lowest risk of death of anybody in the study, even lower than those reporting very little stress.

Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress raised the risk of dying by 43 percent. But that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People under high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as dangerous were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest chance of death of anyone in the study, lower than those who reported enduring very little stress.

The conclusion was that stress wasn’t killing people alone. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful.

By changing your mind about stress, you’re improving your body’s response to stress

This is where emotional intelligence comes into play. Not getting overwhelmed by all the factors that drive out your stress has many in common with emotional intelligence competencies, such as self-management, self and social awareness, and relationship management.

When stress and all its mechanisms come into play, start thinking that it is your body helping you to get over the challenge. As soon as your body trusts you, stress response becomes healthier.

But how can we get to activate this renewal cycle?

According to Boyatzis, medical and psychological research invoke that a number of activities may turn on our body’s response to stress.

Practicing mindfulness is one of them. Taking a deep breath and clearing our mind helps. This can go much far as practicing meditation, yoga, praying and even martial arts.

Feeling hopeful about the future does also help to activate our renewal cycle.

But one of the strongest antidotes to stress we may not be aware of is compassion.

Stress makes you social. Facts:

Remember oxytocin? the main active hormone responsible for the recovery. Oxytocin is also activated when you are, for example, hugging someone. It simply makes you want to be closer to your friends. Empathy enhances its effects, and whether you are asking or offering support to someone under stress you release more of this hormone.

Being in a lovely relationship accelerates removal. Having pets to cuddle helps (that doesn’t work with fish, sorry).

The same experiences that help us build healthy relationships are the experiences to build renewal in our body and mind. Most of the stress at work is related to people, but also people are the leverage you can apply to turn that stress into an advantage. Build relationships you can rely upon, even if those are your primary source of stress.

In a dynamic office, what goes around, comes around.

Ciprian Paraschiv


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