The Good:  We know how to solve this problem.

The Bad: As stress increases, we become less able to solve the real problems… costing billions of dollars, reducing quality of life, driving economic meltdown and even destroying the environment.

The Ugly:  It’s getting worse.


We’re facing a growing demand for collaboration at work, in life — but we’re creating conditions for the opposite.  We’re at war with ourselves, at a cellular level, as our brains struggle to cope with requirements that are beyond the design scope.  While current neuroscience makes this descending spiral brutally clear – it also offers solutions.



“Stress” is a generalization.  It’s shorthand for a sense of imbalance and impending chaos.  Cycle times are accelerating.  Financial systems are melting.  Waters are rising.  So we feel stress.  It’s an emotional signal of danger, and it’s one reason emotional intelligence is more important than ever.  Unfortunately, stress is increasing.


Global Implications

When we “feel stressed” our brains and bodies trigger a series of adaptations to deal with threat.  We are preparing to react to danger by fighting, running, or hiding.  This biological system is highly effective for coping with certain threats, such as a tiger stalking you in the jungle.  You don’t negotiate with tigers.  You don’t innovate.  If you want to survive, you run like heck, or hope you’ve got a big sharp stick handy.


Adapted for these “survival threats,” our bodies respond to stress by shutting down many systems related to long-term thriving (such as immunity, reproduction, empathic response, even analytical thinking) and put all the body’s resources into core muscles.  It means that when we feel stress, we are biologically programmed to be less creative, less compassionate, less visionary.

Innovation versus Comfort

I’ve written before about two competing systems in the brain: certainty versus learning.  When we’re stressed, the brain pushes for safety.  We do what we’ve done before.  We get a shot of a chemical that is “natural heroin” when we follow the known, the predictable – and yes, it is addictive.

Without carefully developing emotional intelligence, we fall into this million-year-old automatic reaction.  Since few of us ever learn these skills in school or even at work, the results are predicable – one only has to look at daily news headlines to see that many people are derailed by this dynamic.

While it may feel as if the tigers are lurking, today few of us face this kind of threat.  Instead we face ongoing, persistent threats tied to complex relational issues such as doing more work with less, talent shortages, and economic uncertainly. At work, the “tigers” are often other people; according to the 2012 Workplace Issues study, over 70% of challenges in the workplace are people-related.

Descending Spiral Kills Collaboration

So we have a vicious spiral.  We’ve got long-term problems that require innovation and bringing people together.  In the face of uncertainty, we feel vulnerable, stress kicks in, and we become less creative and collaborative, and we focus on the short-term, urgent.  This reaction could make us more isolated and overwhelmed, which pushes us toward more stress.

stress-article-feedbackThis spiral makes it nearly impossible to solve the world’s biggest problems, such as global warming.  These challenges require our most creative thinking and remarkable abilities to build coalition.  Yet as soon as we start thinking about the realities of environmental devastation, stress kicks in, and we become less able to access either of those capabilities.

Meanwhile, according the IBM annual study of CEOs, the primary need identified by top leaders:  Collaboration.  A whopping 75% of the respondents call it “Critical.”  Consider:  If the number one need for the future of business success is that people connect, wouldn’t is be essential to develop the skills to do so?  Yet empathy – the skill that would actually let people meet that need, is going down.  Dramatically.  Research published in Scientific American found a 75% drop in empathy over 30 years.

At the very same time, stress is increasing – a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology says it’s gone up around 20% over 25 years.

So we’ve got an increasingly complex environment where the ability to connect is the number one need – and we’re losing it.  In fact, as I’ll explain in a minute, we may be losing empathy BECAUSE of the increasing stress.  But for now:

The writing is on the wall: unless we develop better capabilities for managing these emotional complexities, the future is bleak.


Your Brain At War

One unfortunate effect of the increasing pace is further escalation of stress and deactivation of the very parts of the brain we most need to solve today’s challenges.  Several brain-imaging studies have explored the interaction between our analytical and social brain functions; for example this study from the National Academy of Sciences proposes “anti-correlated functional networks.”  That means when one set of brain functions (a network) is activated, others are suppressed.  We call this “focus,” and it’s essential for coping with complexity.

One of those functional brain networks processes analytical data:  Emails.  Spreadsheets.  Reports.  Another processes emotional data: Faces. Tone of voice. Friend or foe.  Optimally, the social brain network and the analytical brain network are interlocked and work together.  At the same time, we’re able to suppress one system in favor of the other.

For example:  We’re focused on getting through a hundred and sixty three emails, and someone comes to ask a question.  We bark, “Just a MINUTE.”  The task-focus required by analytical brain network suppresses the social brain functions that would allow us to connect appropriately with the other person.


Ignore Emotions to Make Bad Decisions

The same function occurs inside each of us.  As we become more “focused,” we suppress signals such as discomfort.  We ignore our own feelings so we can do the job.  At the extreme, think of a warrior in a hostile environment.  When bullets are flying, you’re supposed to be scared – but you have to suppress those feelings in order to function.  If you become “too good” at disconnecting emotions, you turn off the regulatory function that would otherwise help you make more careful, humane, life-sustaining decisions.

Substitute “warrior” with “executive.”  Now teach that person to suppress feelings that are supposed to arise when we’re making unethical decisions.  It’s easy to see how someone can decide it’s a “good idea” to ignore a report that their deepwater well is likely to cause unprecedented environmental destruction… or their hedge fund is actually undermining global solvency.

Emotions serve as part of our regulatory system – when functioning appropriately they assist us to carefully evaluate impacts on ourselves and others.  When they’re shut off, we make more dangerous choices. Emotions actually assist decision-making.

Couple that insight with the fact that the demands for analytical focus keep increasing.  IBM is excited to sell us services to handle the growing surge: “2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.”

We’ve built incredibly sophisticated IT systems to handle complexity.  We invest in those readily.  What about the “HT” – human technology – to actually use these systems in a way that creates a prosperous future?

So we have increasing complexity driving us to focus narrowly.  We have increasing stress pushing us toward short-term reactivity.  Yet the problems we face require something different.


Meet Dr. De-Stress


If you’ve been to the doctor on a stress-related matter (and WebMD says three out of four US medical visits are stress related), then you’ve probably been treated by Dr. Herbert Benson. Not directly, of course – you might not have even heard his name, but his work has changed the way Western medicine handles stress.

Benson, now a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School,was one of the many remarkable experts who spoke at the NexusEQ Conference in June 2013 on the campus of Harvard University.  The conference focused on the intersection of the science and practice of emotional intelligence.   He shared new data that stress is actually affecting our very DNA — we literally shape our own biology through our responses.

In 1975, Dr. Benson wrote a remarkable book called The Relaxation Response, articulating the biomedical antidote to stress. He later founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute, and became a professor at Harvard Medical School.  He was one of the, if not the, pioneer researching and advocating treatment that works with the human mind and body.

To Stress or Not To Stress

Benson’s work is based on a simple, powerful idea: Just as we have a stress response, we have a relaxation response. In his words, we can learn to trigger this response and facilitate the human mind to bring for the emotions that open us to the positive influences in life.

This is an example of being smarter with feelings, a growing field of science called “Emotional Intelligence.”


The Antidote: Emotional Savvy

One the one hand, we’re wired to react in a manner that probably won’t help.  Yet as Benson and others have shown, we’re capable of learning alternate responses.  This, perhaps, is the reason emotional intelligence is so important today: increasing complexity puts social and emotional skills at a premium.

That’s probably why leaders with more emotional intelligence skills create stronger business value.  Salespeople trained in these skills outsell others (in one study, 40% better). Many studies show that children trained in these emotional skills earn higher are more healthy, socially connected, and, at the same time, reach higher academic achievement.

Peter Salovey (now President of Yale University) and his colleague John Mayer were the first to define emotional intelligence with scientific rigor.  Since that first paper in 1990, a plethora of research has emerged on the neurology of emotion and the links to learning, leadership, and life.

Perhaps even more importantly, around the world these scientific discoveries are being used to make life better at work, at school, and in communities.  People are learning the skills of emotional intelligence with demonstrable results, even in “hardcore” business environments.

The Proof in Emotional Intelligence

While the term “emotional intelligence” was once the purview of esoteric researchers, it’s become so widely recognized that a worldwide conference on the subject convened on the campus of Harvard University in June. Perhaps even more compelling is the nature of the program: session after session, from all around the world, from every sector, we saw examples that emotional intelligence actually creates positive change.  For children and families.  For the environment.  For health.  For business.

Returning to stress and health, one example is Dr. Sandeep Kelkar, a pediatrician in Mumbai, India.  Over a decade ago, Kelkar noticed that different children responded to the same treatment in different ways, and began to observe the family interactions.  As a result, Kelkar began to work with the staff in his clinic on how they could go beyond “treating disease” and focus on a larger goal: the wellbeing of children in their care.

This led Kelkar to travel to California to learn about Six Seconds and the Self-Science process for social emotional learning.  He began to experiment, then, with several colleagues created a foundation in Mumbai: EQuip kids – with a simple vision:  What if every adult had the emotional intelligence skills to fully support children?

Kelkar, together with his colleague Sudha Srikanth, a preschool director, shared another the success story, and the practical ways they’ve used emotional intelligence as a “Psychological Vaccine” to create lasting wellbeing. Dr. Kelkar’s conclusion: “Emotional intelligence is the missing ingredient in healthcare, as well as the education system.”

This works.

Yes, we have a perilous situation in the world.  Yes, stress is increasing, conspiring against our better nature, making it even harder to resolve the crises we face.  Yet an antidote is at hand.


About the author - Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.

View more posts from Joshua Freedman

Comments for this article (27)

  • Hi Joshua,
    For me this isn’t theory and I’ve used what you are talking about personally, with my teens, husband, employees back beginning over ten years ago and with patients/clients. In a nutshell, every area of life and it has made all the difference in the quality of my life. When we begin to consciously access and “Optimally operate” our “inner technology” with awareness, I know – from experience – we are capable of tempering our stress response. As a once perfectionistic eye surgeon (not a way to live, glad I’m over it – we can perform with excellence and still have fun and keep life enjoyable), I know this is real.

    We need to learn how to access/develop our prefrontal cortex muscles to take back control of our awareness and temper the hijacking of the Survival brain AND exercise the aspects of our right brain (the heart side) which allows us to rest, restore, rejuvenate and relate. Fortunately for me, I began this process well over a decade ago and now I have the science to back it up (instead of waiting for science to tell me it was OK). I read Dr. Benson’s book over a decade ago…I’m glad to see his work expanding. I think these are hopeful, exciting times – change is uncomfortable and some things, need to evolve…it’s all a a part of growth. Thanks for your leadership in this very important area.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thank you Valencia. I suspect, like many highly educated and trained people, you experienced the need to “shut down” emotion in order to do the work. There is such an emphasis on cognitive knowledge in all professional fields, esp ones like medicine… and based on the research, it’s easy to see how that actually contributes to de-humanizing self and others. So congratulations on making the journey back to being connected!

  • Tauqir says:

    An excellent article; very comprehensive and educative, containing a wealth of information. A ‘must read’ for everyone. Thanks Josh for a valuable addition to EQ material and best of luck with NexusEQ!

  • Excellent article based and backed by life experiences ( training and Education + business cases).
    This is for me the way to promote E.I and convince learners only by linking E.I with real life!
    Specially for convincing analytical Managers….
    Thks again Josh for this sharing.
    Warmly – Thierry

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thank you Thierry – I hope this blend of data + emotion helps people see this is serious, urgent, and actionable!

  • Excellent article. Stress management is one of my specialties.People need to know the true impact of poor stress management.

  • May Duong says:

    I recently experienced – with a personal decision I had to make – that when I allow our emotions to inform and guide me, as opposed to feeling threatened that they will “fog” my decision making (thanks to my background in analytic philosophy), I felt uplifted and even enlightened in the decision making process! I am one of those “analytical managers” who is coming to appreciate the full implications of integrating EQ with IQ in our professional and personal lives. Thanks for making such a strong case for this!

  • Konstantinos Mougios says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts and facts Josh, I find your article truly inspiring!

    Furthermore, I believe the world is more than ready to embrace this wonderful concept of EQ, that will definitely create healthier societies!

  • This was a fantastic article! I really appreciated the statistics from IBM on Collaboration. I especially liked the link between EQI/Empathy, stress, and collaboration. Thank you!

  • Anna Logies says:

    plan to reply with experiences after i write in journal 2nite

  • bbanublog says:

    each of us experience this in our life time both individualy, economically and more so mentally that results finally show on our life and make us pause to re-evaluate our living strategies. Thank you posting this on EI!

  • John E. Howard says:

    I like that this is a mixture of the big picture and general with the specific and action-oriented. My only caution is anything that sounds like it oversimplifies major world issues (i.e. global warming) loses some credibility of its message. Not to say that EI does not have a positive role to play in solving such issues, but rather that the attainment of EI skills is not straightforward or easy and even less so the resolution of those issues. All in all, though, thanks so much for continuing to add solid substance to this change movement!

  • Monali says:

    Hi Joshua,

    This article is very nice and educative material. I feel the emotions that spontaneously are seen in children are always being controlled when we grow and that leads us to stress, Only as adults we should express emotions as per situation and don’t suppress that child.


  • Nik says:

    Hey Josh
    As is always the case this article came to me just as I was pondering two significant life events. ONE: My partner an amazing emotionally intelligent man is on 8wks leave after a “heart scare” due to severe over work in an organisation and “sector” that is pushing its management to the extreme with a platform of severe resource shortages both people and systems and a predictable organisational focus on “growth at any cost”. So we have decided to make some big life changes which mean less money but no more travel for work and a job that is only three days a week for Stephen. This experience highlights your discussion/research on the cost of stress and lack of empathy in the work environment.
    TWO: We have recently began to run a program on our farm which offers supported accomodation for at risk young mums and their children. Our first mum is experiencing huge struggles with her impulse control and lack of emotional intelligence. Of course her own childhood experiences are also driving her reactions. She is a beautiful young girl who is under severe stress and as you point out in your article has as a result no empathy for her children at times of extreme frustration. I am pondering what type of responses and support will best suit this situation. She clearly is suffering from a brain/body that floods with cortisol each time she feels overwhelmed and she has absolutley no bond/attatchment to her youngest child 10mths. As a result there has been much severe neglect of this precious baby and mixed responses/ relationship with her first child who is now 2 and half years. I will follow up on some of your research links and suggestions. I am heading to a four day course focused on “circle of security” training in a few weeks. I have also read Dan Hughes amazing books such as “building the bonds of attachment”. Any other suggestions about working with parents at risk and children who are experiencing abuse or extreme neglect would be very much appreciated. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we walk this path with our young mum and her precious children.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Nik – sounds like both Stephen & the mums are learning to come back down the escalator… I like the metaphor of escalator. What causes us to go up? What allows us to come back down? Where on the escalator is “normal” or “comfortable”? I suspect that “ground floor” – calm – is uncomfortable for both. Are you familiar with Herbert Benson’s work, and his 1975(?) book, The Relaxation Response? Moving down the escalator…

      What’s missing, for me, in that work and most of the work on mindfulness, is a recognition of the value of the emotions that are driving us up. Stress, fear, anger, frustration, jealousy… they’re not BAD feelings. They’re valuable IF we harness them. If we let them run us, they run us up and over that escalator! You might want to look at my book, INSIDE CHANGE. It’s about business, but the model (Change MAP) applies to those mums too. Blending that emotional transition with the rational change.

      Here’s more about the Change MAP:

  • HI! Josh, I feel while reading this particular post that, I am used to the first format, so took a while to respond to it. Is it related with my old pattern of website? I liked the idea of landing page. And this is covering a lot of things in a very neat, at a single eye-sight. I agree with the post on Stress. The other day I had a case of a small( 7 yr.) girl. And she used to start crying just after 2/3 min.s whenever her mother used to start teaching her. Of course her mother came to me with this complaint and when I explained her with the help of EQ. She could actually relate it with the situation and now learning to become more empathise with her own daughter. She also asked that, how such a small girl can go through stress? It was an amazing experience for me as well to learn more about parent’s perspective towards it. Thank you for this article. And thank you for bringing this on 6seconds website.

  • jim vaive says:

    I have also used this information at my company with exciting results.
    It is time for us that believe in this “mission” to take it out to the world in a way that will help to stop the insanity.

  • Gatot Widayanto says:

    Hi Joshua,

    This is an excellent article and ignites me to learn more when I join the certification class in Spore end of May this year. Thanks.
    Most importantly I learn a lot from this straight forward article especially with the facts that increasing stress by 20% would impact to 75% decrease in empathy. This is scary ..I think.

    I remember many years ago when I first heard the term EI, it was from the work of Daniel Goleman whom you did not mention in this article. Any reason?

    Thanks a lot for this nice article.


    Just a technical thing there is a typo that may not alter the essence of the article:

    “Benson’s work is based one a simple, powerful idea: …” should be ” ….based on a simple …”

    That’s just technical.

  • Mr G says:

    Hi Joshua –
    Thank you for this wonderfully informative article and all the amazing work you are doing to help make this world a better place.
    1 billion – Here we come!!!
    Mr G

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