I'm So Stressed!

Can emotional intelligence help us with life’s biggest challenges?

We need more collaboration — but we’re creating conditions for the opposite. We’re facing increased complexity — but we’re setting ourselves up to be unable to juggle. We need more proactive innovation — but we’re training ourselves to be reactive and closed.

We’re in a descending spiral of stress, and it’s getting worse. While current neuroscience makes this challenge brutally clear – it also offers solutions.

by Joshua Freedman


Why Do We Have Stress?

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.

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 Workplace Vitality research, over 70% of challenges in the workplace are people-related.

Stress & Innovation: Do We Take the Known Path?

Dopamine is our brain’s reward system. We get a little hit of this natural heroin to reward ourselves for following certain protocols – Candace Pert is the neurobiologist who discovered that we have receptors for these opiates even in our “rational” brain areas.

When we’re certain, we get a dopamine reward. That has helped our species survive by going on the known, safe path.


When we take risks, we get a reward too — and this has helped us learn and  grow. But when we’re stressed, the brain pushes for safety.  We do what we’ve done before.  Unfortunately, in 2020, more than three-quarters of adults in the APA stress research report physical or emotional symptoms of stress, and stress appears to have increased even more dramatically with CV19.

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.

Here’s the vicious spiral of stress:


In the face of uncertainty, we feel vulnerable, stress kicks in.


We become  less creative and collaborative and focus on the short-term, urgent.


This makes us more isolated, less open to risk, so we don’t change or get help.


The lack of progress and support leaves us overwhelmed & more stressed.

Are We Solving The Biggest Problems?

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

As an Action Partner with the United Nations, Six Seconds is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and we see EQ is an important ingredient in the “inner work” required to achieve the SDGs. With input from over 10 million citizens, in 2015 the United Nations adopted the SDGs and a map of what needs to happen for a sustainable future by 2030. We are already behind, and the stress cycle is one reason why.

I’m especially interested in SDG 17 and the challenge of bringing divergent perspectives together. We can’t solve the other 16 problems if we don’t work together — at a scale that has rarely been seen in human history. So we have intensely complex problems that require massive collaboration, but as stress is rising, the one thing we MOST need to do is becoming harder and harder. 

I wrote the first version of this article before the NexusEQ Harvard Emotional Intelligence Conference in 2013. In that article, I wrote that with the massive increases in stress and decline in empathy since 2000, we were facing a significant challenge. My conclusion then:

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

We’ve not managed to turn this tide, and, indeed, the challenges seem bigger than ever. Stress has continued to rise. Empathy, according to the world’s largest study of emotional intelligence, has continued to decline.

Stress is up.

We’ve got big challenges.

So how does that work in our brains?


The Neuroscience of Stress: 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. I explained this research in one of my TEDx talks:




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

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.

We have emotions to help us pay attention to what’s important. 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. Fear is an essential tool for change.

Couple that insight with the fact that the demands for analytical focus keep increasing. Tech companies are excited to sell us services to handle the growing surge: IBM said, “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.




What's the Antidote?

We can’t just “learn about” emotional intelligence. To address these challenges, we need to PRACTICE. How do you practice emotional intelligence? Get our free eBook to get started:

Our brains are wired to go into the stress reaction.

But we also have wiring for a different response. 

We Have a Stress Reaction – and a Relaxation Response

If you’ve been to the doctor in the US 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 Six Seconds’ 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 — and as the case studies show, business are getting 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 2013. In 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. Then, in 2019, we had the first-ever emotional intelligence conference at the United Nations HQ. Year by year, we’re making progress.



The Bottom Line: We Have Choice

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.

What if the challenges we’re facing are actually the catalyst to push us to grow? What if we could equip millions – a billion – people with the skills of emotional intelligence… and we could learn to practice? 

That’s what Six Seconds is working on.

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