Work stress is as old as work itself. And so are the ways we respond. You can just imagine the first cave-clan’s leader spending sleepless nights counting stalactites, worried about how he was going to break the news to Ug and the other hunters that the decreasing wild beast population meant they were going to have less to eat. Stress always has, and probably always will, go hand-in-hand with work.
Unfortunately, stress appears to be on the rise. In a study conducted earlier this year at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, Dr. Diana Fernandez, MD, found that job stress not only makes workers unhappier but also harms their health. In her study of 2,782 employees at a large manufacturing facility, Fernandez and her team found strong links between job stress and cardiovascular disease, depression, exhaustion, and weight gain. After a tense day of pink slips circulating around the office, many workers told Fernandez’s team that they looked forward to going home and “vegging out” in front of the TV. In the American Psychological Association’s 2009 Stress in America Survey, 42% of Americans said their stress levels had increased since the previous year. A lukewarm economy and high unemployment suggest that 2010’s numbers aren’t going to improve.
But what if you could reduce stress without having to wait for the economy to improve? A promising stream of research linking emotional intelligence (EQ) to stress- reduction offers exciting new clues about how to beat stress in spite of economic woes.
A team of Belgian researchers led by Dr. Moira Mikolajczak found that levels of emotional intelligence—a person’s ability to understand and manage his or her own emotions and those of other people—determine how effectively people cope with stress. Mikolajczak found that people with high emotional intelligence report better moods, less anxiety, and less worry during times of tension and stress than those with less ability to identify and manage their emotions.
But emotional intelligence is not just about naïve optimism or disguising negative emotions by forcing yourself to put on a happy face. Mikolajczak discovered that emotionally intelligent people actually feel less stress. Emotionally intelligent people have improved their ability to engage their emotions and rational thinking simultaneously. This results in a more contained, comfortable reaction to stressful circumstances. As your EQ increases, you actually feel less stress. Without consciously trying to control their reactions to stress, high EQ individuals show fewer physical signs of stress reactions, such as sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, and increased secretion of certain hormones and brain chemicals. When facing a situation that sends most people climbing up the walls, a high-EQ person approaches the stressor with the same calm composure that most people demonstrate only in the most trivial of circumstances.
In other words, emotionally intelligent people not only claim to experience less stress, they also physically and mentally experience less stress.
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
The Belgian researchers uncovered two primary reasons for emotional intelligence limiting stress. First, they found that emotionally intelligent people evaluate their environment differently. In the words of Dr. Mikolajczak, they “are particularly inclined to look for the silver lining, invoke pleasant thoughts or memories in order to counter their current emotional state, think about what steps to take in order to handle the problem, and put it into perspective. In contrast, they seem less likely to catastrophize or to blame themselves for the occurrence of the problem and/or for their incapacity to solve it.”
Second, and perhaps most important, people who are good with emotions are more likely to choose a “problem-focused” coping strategy. Each problem we encounter presents us with two choices: address the problem head- on or bury our heads in the sand, hoping that the issue will resolve itself. People who employ a problem-focused coping strategy devote their attention to solving the problem, rather than ignoring it. This adaptive approach to solving problems works to squash the cause of the stress and lessens the amount of stress experienced because the mere act of devising a plan makes you feel more relaxed and in control. People enjoy challenging jobs, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku for the same reason—solving problems is mentally stimulating.
In contrast, less emotionally intelligent people let their fear and anxiety drive them toward a “problem-avoidance” coping strategy, which only prolongs the tension. As you might guess, these two strategies become a self-fulfilling prophecy—confirming the belief that led the individual to think that way in the first place and furthering his or her conviction that the problem is too much to handle. The habit of avoiding problems doesn’t make you forget them. Instead, it keeps you wallowing in the negative emotions that accompany a burdensome challenge. The problem itself remains a perpetual source of stress, amplifying the bad feelings that make stress hard to deal with.
In theory, it would seem that you could take a shortcut by skipping the emotional intelligence piece and just learning the adaptive coping strategies. The only problem is that Mikolajczak’s team also found that people who aren’t good with emotions are also poor at using a problem- focused strategy. Only the emotionally intelligent bunch— who know how to fend off the distractions created by fear, sadness, anger, jealousy, shame, and the like—are able to effectively implement a problem-focused approach.
EQ Training: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Fortunately, in a 2009 study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal, Mikolajczak and her colleagues showed that virtually anyone can develop emotional intelligence with training. The Belgian team (this time led by Delphine Nells) proved that emotional intelligence can be significantly improved with only a handful of short training sessions. In a series of four 150-minute trainings spread out over a month, participants significantly increased their ability to identify and manage emotions. The trainings included such basic training elements as short lectures, role-playing, group discussions, reading assignments, and a daily journal entry about one emotional experience.
Most amazing, however, is that the people who received emotional intelligence training not only maintained their new emotional intelligence skills six months after the training ended but also showed a slight improvement in their EQ at the six-month follow-up. We can only imagine how much they would have improved had they received even a brief reminder to practice their emotional intelligence skills every few days.
How to Beat Your Stress
To start reducing your stress by improving your own emotional intelligence, there are two basic steps.
- Get an EQ education. The best way to educate yourself is with the help of a reputable, certified emotional intelligence trainer or coach. If you check with your training department, you might already have access to such a professional within your organization. If you don’t have access to one, feel free to contact us to learn about locating a certified trainer or becoming one yourself. If connecting with a certified trainer isn’t an option for you, then Emotional Intelligence 2.0 will provide you with a step-by-step process for improving your emotional intelligence.
- Practice. After you have developed the right foundation of emotional intelligence knowledge, you must practice using it. You can do this with the old-fashioned system of sticky notes on your nightstand and bathroom mirror, or you can get a little more precise with an automated reminder system. At TalentSmartEQ®, we believe so strongly in the power of regular reminders that we include access to our proprietary, automated Goal-Tracking System™ within all of our assessments, including the complementary access to the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal®that’s included with the Emotional Intelligence 2.0 book.
In sum, the research you’ve just explored means that people—all people—are very capable of eradicating stress with a relatively small amount of emotional intelligence training. A little emotional intelligence training goes a very long way in helping you to reduce stress and handle the obstacles that life inevitably throws your way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmartEQ, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.