Some people seem unflappable in high pressure situations where others crumble. Not only that; they seem to handle all the mud that life throws at them without any of it sticking to them!
They almost seem immune to stress.
It has nothing to do with IQ level and is not dependent upon academic background or professional accomplishments.
The secret ingredient seems to be emotional intelligence or EQ as it’s often termed. People with high EQ seem less prone to anxiety and far less likely to face the type of burnout that has reached almost epidemic proportions in developed populations around the world.
While emotional intelligence has frequently been held up as a key ingredient of successful leadership in recent years, it in fact goes deeper than that: indeed, it is a key component of our health and wellbeing, our happiness, and our personal success.
When we observe that “some people seem to handle stress better than others” what does this actually mean and what might the reason be?
Stress is a response in the brain resulting from circumstances perceived to be demanding or threatening. Before feeling stressed, we must first interpret a situation as demanding and then our brains activate a stress response that causes physical changes (the release of hormones, for instance).
This is a primitive response to danger: like the ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism that kicks in automatically when we sense danger.
This perhaps harks back to our distant past, when we were hunter gatherers. It proved very useful then but the same stress response that protected us from danger while hunting is less useful in most situations we face in modern life.
In fact, the stress response can harm our natural wellbeing, making us act impetuously, leading to poor decisions, and poor outcomes for ourselves and those around us – unless!
Unless we can control the response – and that’s where emotional intelligence comes in.
Two of the main ‘seats’ of emotional intelligence are self-awareness and self-management: both can be invaluable in reducing the intensity of the stress response.
Mayer and Salovey, who first introduced the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ in 1990, identified four main components of EQ.
1. Emotional perception: the ability to perceive and express feelings;
2. Emotional facilitation: the ability to use emotion to facilitate cognitive activities;
3. Emotional understanding: the ability to label emotions and understand how they change; and
4. Emotional management: the ability to manage emotions for personal growth.
Daniel Goleman’s work has refined the four main areas that emotional intelligence covers. These are now generally termed:
1. Self-awareness: knowing your internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions;
2. Self-management: managing your internal states, impulses, and resources;
3. Social awareness: handling relationships and awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns; and
4. Relationship management: adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others.
By developing the first three of these areas in particular, you can start to improve the way you deal with situations before they lead to feeling stressed and burnt out.
In short, emotionally intelligent people are better able to recognise and understand the signs of stress; and also to manage their response to that stress.
Though they may be exposed to the same dangerous or threatening situations as anybody else, they are at an advantage because:
· They perceive the situation differently – with less fear
· They perceive their own stress response beginning– but it is predictable and expected
· Because it is expected (and not a shock to them) they are able to call on their learnt ability to control this response
· They don’t allow their emotions to ‘hijack’ their behaviour
· They are calmer and appear ready for any eventuality
· They have the self-confidence and composure to face unexpected change
The confidence that comes from knowing yourself and being able to control your reactions creates a strong grounding for managing stress.
So when we say that “some people seem to handle stress better than others” we may really be alluding to the fact that they have the emotional awareness and emotional control to manage situations that are perceived as stressful.
They are prepared to take responsibility for their actions and not ‘blame’ their emotions or other people for outcomes.
Emotions have a habit of overrunning us unless we take active steps to gain more control over them. They end up controlling us – even though we might think we are in control. The poor decisions that result from allowing emotions to run wild can upset our personal, professional, and social lives – leading to more stressful situations.
We’ve all become angry when someone cuts in front of us in the car. Imagine this happening one morning on the drive to work. The object of your ire arrives at work completely unaware that he or she has upset you. But you arrive stressed, immediately snap at a colleague, and it ruins the rest of your day. It’s your own self-judgment and lack of control that’s to blame for your stress – not the other motorist.
You can choose to play the victim or learn to better control your responses.
And the good news is that emotional intelligence skills like self-awareness and self-management can be learnt. By developing these aspects of your make-up you can lower stress and the likelihood of burnout.
Start to gain more control by practicing mindfulness and making time for self-reflection; understand how you think, feel, and react to situations and other people. Also try to understand what makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad, angry, or frustrated. Acknowledge your negative feelings as well as your positive ones.
This will help you start to manage your expectations better and to adapt to unexpected changes without impulsive reactions. You will also be better equipped to recognise the ‘triggers’ when emotions start rising and sabotaging your thought processes – and to take evasive action to prevent your emotions running wild.
This will help you replace the stress response and all the negative outcomes that result from it, with a more measured and positive response.
The result of that can be a greater sense of