Emotional Intelligence and Stress

by James Porter March 01, 2010

I recently attended a 3-day seminar at a Yoga Retreat Center in the Berkshires with Daniel Goleman and his wife Tara Bennet- Goleman. To get ready for the weekend retreat, I decided to go back and reread Goleman's landmark book on Emotional Intelligence. I first read it when it came out in 1995 but I was surprised to see how cutting edge the book still is today.

If you are interested in how the brain reacts under stress this book is a must read. Goleman was one of the first people to write about the area of the brain known as the amygdala. This area is responsible for vigilance and it is always on guard for early warning signs of danger (whether that danger is real or imagined.) When we over-react to a perceived threat, Goleman calls this reaction an amygdala hijacking. It's when you are so overwhelmed by your emotions that you just can't think straight. No matter how rational you try to be, your emotions just seem to rule the day.

There is a very fast single-neuron connection between your eyes and ears and the amygdala. And there is a slower indirect pathway leading from the eyes and ears to the cerebral cortex (the home of "rational" thought). This means the amygdala is already generating a response before the thinking brain has had a chance to even assess the incoming information. So when you hear a loud noise coming from downstairs in the middle of the night - before you have time to think that the noise you heard was the cat knocking over a lamp - your body has already reacted as if the noise were an intruder.

So why would your body be programmed to set off false alarms? For evolutionary reasons, it's better to mistake a stick for a (poisonous) snake than vice versa. (In other words our quick-triggered ancestors were more likely to pass on their genes than the slow triggered ones were.) Amazingly this hair-triggered response is initiated within a few thousandths of a second after the danger is perceived. So by design, emotions (especially fear and anger) can precede thoughts. This explains why it is sometimes very difficult to think rationally when an emotion has already taken a hold of you.

For decades the standard view of the brain was always that thoughts precede emotions. Goleman recognized (before others did) that the work being done by pioneers in the field like Paul Eckman and Richard Davidson showed us how the emotional brain (the limbic system) could respond to situations before the rational brain (the cerebral cortex).

To be sure, thoughts often do precede emotions. You can readily cause yourself to feel sad or angry by thinking a depressing or upsetting thought. And this is where rational thinking techniques like cognitive restructuring and reframing work effectively. In this domain it's often thoughts battling thoughts. It's an even playing field.

But there are plenty of times that emotions precede thoughts: When someone criticizes you unfairly, or cuts ahead of you in line, or does something that "pushes your buttons," your heart rate can jump 10 to 20 or even 30 beats a second instantly between one beat and the next. And once your heart is racing and your bloodstream is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline forget about trying to think rationally. You just can't do it!

So now you know why it's almost impossible to try to argue with someone rationally or think clearly when your brain has been hijacked in this way. Your cerebral cortex is overwhelmed, working memory is impaired and you're just not going to be able to communicate your thoughts effectively and you may make the situation worse. Better to walk away, do something to calm yourself down and come back to the situation (at least 30 minutes later) when you have full control of your faculties.

After the opening night of the weekend seminar, Goleman gave us all the assignment to be on the look out for an amygdala hijacking. I suggest you do the same. You'll notice how you get so upset, your emotions just seem to take over your whole body. It happens quite quickly. In future blogs we'll show you how to cope with an emotional hijack and what you can do to prevent them.




James Porter
James Porter

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