“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– VICTOR FRANKL
Over the past decade or more, emotional intelligence has gained traction as a must-have trait, particularly for leaders. But the term is used so freely and frequently that few of us can really articulate what it means. Is it composure? Is it flexibility? Is it empathy?
Emotional intelligence can encompass all these traits, but more specifically, it’s defined as your capacity for awareness and effective management of your emotions.
Those with high EQ are more likely to be aware of, control, and express their emotions.
Nearly everyone has the capacity for emotional intelligence, but tapping into it is often easier said than done. It becomes especially challenging in stressful circumstances, when your nervous system is triggered and sets off a tsunami of feelings that are difficult to get a grip on.
When it comes to coping with stress, there is no simple formula. Each of us experiences different triggers, which cause different reactions. In a quest for growth, however, we can turn to one technique: boosting emotional intelligence.
Research has shown that emotionally intelligent people have a greater ability to engage their emotions and rational thinking simultaneously, resulting in a more controlled response to stress. And that can be a game-changer when it comes to coping with uncertainty, overcoming obstacles, and navigating relationships.
The most common triggers
You can probably easily rattle off a dozen different stressors in your life: a forgotten appointment, an argument with a partner, a missed bill payment, an impending deadline. Big or small, these things trigger feelings that can create a ripple effect and impact your well-being.
It should come as no surprise that work tops the list of the most common causes of stress. In fact, one survey showed that 40% of workers in the U.S. experience stress at work, and 25% say work is the biggest stressor in their lives.
Stress—at work and in life—often falls into five buckets:
You may worry about keeping up with your workload or wonder how to juggle your family’s jam-packed calendar.
You may feel like you have little control over the work you do or worry that your personal to-do list is ever-growing and never-ending.
You may lament not having adequate resources at work or feel you don’t receive enough support or encouragement from your partner.
You may be grappling with challenging co-workers, managers, or clients or worried about mending a damaged friendship.
You may have difficulty coping with transitions, such as acclimating to a new role or company or entering a different life stage.
The most common responses
Any of these stressors can disrupt your nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response. When you perceive a threat, your body and mind kick into action. And at this point, regulating your emotions becomes difficult.
Depending on the trigger, your response to stress may range from mild to severe. You might experience a low-level sense of dis-ease or physical symptoms like difficulty breathing. The feeling may be fleeting, or it may linger even after you remove yourself from the situation.
The broad range of symptoms can include:
- Trouble focusing,
- Feelings of panic or dread,
- Physical pain like headaches or body aches,
- Nervousness and anxiety,
- And difficulty regulating your emotions.
Improving your ability to recognize and manage your emotions—in other words, improving emotional intelligence—may be the most important thing you can do to mitigate the other symptoms in this list.
How to calm a triggered nervous system
Becoming more emotionally intelligent is the best way to ensure you can cope with stress effectively. But as with any personal growth, expanding our emotional intelligence takes time—it requires creating awareness, exploring tendencies, and practicing new behaviors.
My own journey to greater emotional intelligence remains in progress. In the meantime, I’ve discovered a few techniques to help calm an amped-up nervous system.
PAUSE & PROCESS.
When you experience something stressful, you may feel an initial surge of emotion that lasts 30 to 90 seconds. Your mind is trying to process incoming information quickly—and this is when you’re most likely to react impulsively. Instead, take a pause. My go-to technique is to step outside. I find that any time spent in nature—even if it’s only a moment while I let my dog out—helps me return to calm.
You’ve heard that deep breathing is an effective way to calm your nervous system. Deep, controlled breaths signal your brain that you’re not in danger. And pausing to breathe can help you recognize your emotions and prevent an outburst. I’ve tried a technique called box breathing: inhale for four counts, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four more. It may not provide lasting relief from my worries, but it does redirect my focus in the moment.
PRACTICE OBSERVING HOW YOU FEEL.
In stressful circumstances, your emotions may feel amplified. This makes managing them even more difficult. Visualization can help build a boundary between you and the emotion you’re experiencing. For example, picture the emotion as a tub filled to the brim, then imagine pulling a stopper and draining it to empty.
These are techniques I rely on in the near term when I’m met with a challenge. In the long term, I feel confident that my efforts to increase my awareness—of myself and others—will help me better recognize my triggers and preemptively manage my reactions.
If you’re seeking more effective ways to cope with stress and calm your nervous system, consider starting with the EIP3 Emotional Intelligence Profile.
Gaining a better understanding of your emotional intelligence can boost your self-awareness and self-management, as well as your awareness of others and relationship management. Learn more about the EIP3 and meet the Transitions Coaching team here.