One recurring theme that you will see throughout my posts is that stress plays a major role in the demise of emotional intelligence (EI or EQ). Studies have shown that stress can lead to productivity loss and physical ailments. Another study showed that people’s perceptions, decisions, and attitudes can change based on the perceived level of stress. Stress can also have a significant effect on your ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, ultimately affecting your EQ. By practicing ways to be mindful of stress and counteract stress affects in your life, you can help yourself reach your highest potential in your personal life and professional career.
Did you know you have two brains? You have your thinking or rational brain, which is located in the frontal lobes of your brain, that helps you to reason, plan, coordinate your movements, and many other functions like helping decode the information received from your senses. You also have your feeling brain, which is located in the limbic system and made up of a set of brain structures, that is involved in your emotional state, motivations, and even your survival instincts like your fight-or-flight response. By way of design, information is received in the brain by first passing through your limbic system where you “feel” the information and second to the frontal lobes where you rationalize and “think” about the information. No wonder we are constantly battling our emotions- they are triggered first!
What is the fight-or-flight response? As information passes through the limbic system, it has the potential of activating the fight-or-flight response, which is our survival mechanism discovered by Walter Cannon over 100 years ago. A long time ago, the fight-or-flight response was meant to help protect us from predators who wanted to destroy or eat us. When we felt we were in danger of any kind or there was some perceived level of threat, the limbic system sounded an alarm and we reacted with either staying and fighting, freezing, or fleeing. When your alarm sounds, your limbic system floods your body with different hormones to get your heart rate up, blood flowing, and ready to react at a moment’s notice. Living in a modern society today, the limbic system not only will perceive large animals as threats but also situations that can cause you stress and tension like traffic, a reprimand from your boss, friend, or family member, an argument with your spouse, disciplining your kids, and even keeping up with social media. These daily stressors act like modern-day threats to your survival as the mind sees them as potential things that can harm you, potentially keeping you on high-alert all the time without even recognizing it.
How do you recognize the fight-or-flight/stress response? The alarm the limbic system sounds when your fight-or-flight response is triggered may come in the form of the urge to run away, defend yourself, or even show up as physical or emotional symptoms. Some emotional or psychological symptoms that may surface when your fight-or-flight response is triggered could be anxiety, poor concentration, depression, frustration, anger, or fear to name a few. Physical symptoms when your fight-or-flight response is triggered may be felt as headaches, increased heart rate, shoulder and neck tension, an upset stomach, shallow breathing, or sweating. Pay attention to both your physical and emotional states, and see if you can identify when your fight-or-flight response is triggered.
What is the relaxation response? Just as the fight-or-flight response can trigger a physiological response such as increased heart rate, the relaxation response can have just as powerful of an opposite effect. The relaxation response was discovered by Dr. Herbert Benson over 40 years ago and is defined as your ability to elicit a state of quietude. In this relaxed state, you can lower your heart rate, metabolic rate, and breathing rate, essentially slowing your body and mind down to a state where healing and rejuvenation takes place. Activating this relaxation response is even more important to our survival today as our fight-or-flight response is inappropriately triggered by stress and tension.
Deactivating the fight-or-flight response and activating the relaxation response. Because emotions and the fight-or-flight response are triggered first when it comes to processing information, it is important to train our brains to deal and cope with daily stressors and emotions. Fortunately, there are several techniques and truly no limit to the different ways the relaxation response can be triggered. Here are a few easy techniques to try to help you deactivate the fight-or-flight response and activate the relaxation response.
- Repeat focus word: Wherever you are, think and focus on a key word, phrase, sound, or prayer to repeat silently or aloud that feels good to you. You can be sitting, walking, or exercising. You want to pick something that brings you a sense of calm, relaxation, peace, joy, or some form of positivity. Suggestions: “one, love, peace, Hail Mary full of grace, Our Father who art in Heaven, Sh’ma Yisrael, Om, I am safe, I am at peace, or I am loved”. If exercising or walking, repeat your phrase or word with each step or rep, and if sitting, repeat your phrase or word with each inhale or exhale. Passively acknowledge distracting thoughts and allow them to pass through as you just continue focusing on repeating your phrase or word.
- Progressive muscle relaxing: Wherever you are, start at your head or your toes, and focus on contracting and then relaxing each muscle group as you progressively work your way up or down your body. Hold the contracted muscles for 5-10 seconds, then release and relax each muscle group. You may even time your muscle contractions with an inhale and release and relax your muscles on the exhale. Allow thoughts to come and go, passively acknowledging them, and continue relaxing each muscle group. Repeat as many times as necessary, slowing down each time you relax and release.
- Deep breathing observation: Wherever you are, notice your surroundings and exhale completely allowing your stomach to cave in to your spine slightly. On your inhale, breathing slow and deep, observe your surroundings and repeat silently or aloud what you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. Allow your surroundings to focus you on going within rather than just one key word or phrase. Allow other distracting thoughts to come and go and continually bring yourself back to observing and breathing deeply.
Regular practice of switching on the relaxation response can help you counteract and even prevent damage done to your body by stressful and nervous reactions that occur in your body throughout your day. The more you practice your relaxation response, the more you can maintain that state of calm and counteract the effects of stress. They keys to activating the relaxation response is having a mental focus whether it is on a song, word, phrase, prayer, or whatever you see AND having a passive attitude while you practice. Don’t worry about doing it right; just practice. You don’t worry about brushing your teeth right, do you? You just brush your teeth because you know how to do it and you know it is good for you. Activating the relaxation response is the same thing….just do it every day knowing that it is good for you.
Benson, H., & Klipper, M. Z. (2000). The relaxation response. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. San Diego, CA: TalentSmart, Inc.
Hobson, C. J., & Delunas, L. (2009). Efficacy of different techniques for reducing stress: A study among business students in the United States. International Journal of Management, 26(2), 186-196. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/233228643?accountid=34899
Yu, M., PhD. (2009). Employees’ perception of organizational change: The mediating effects of stress management strategies. Public Personnel Management, 38(1), 17-32. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/215950700?accountid=34899
National Institutes of Health. (2015). Brain basics: Know your brain. Retrieved from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/know_your_brain.htm