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A Surprising New Way to Use Your Emotional Intelligence

New research suggests how emotional intelligence can boost your stress response.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence is not just a trait, but an ability, with 4 key features.
  • Recent research on emergency personnel shows the value of tapping into your emotional intelligence.
  • Using your emotional intelligence can help you deal more effectively with stress.
Pheelings media/Shutterstock
Source: Pheelings media/Shutterstock

One of the great truisms in psychology is that stress is in the eye of the beholder. As articulated by eminent stress researchers Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, what one person sees as a threat can be viewed by another person as a challenge. Think about how you respond when the day presents you with more than the ordinary set of obligations. Perhaps you have a close relative who’s become ill and needs your help with a household chore. You already have a jam-packed schedule that has no room for maneuvering. Do you feel that you can rise to the occasion, or will it overwhelm you even more?

What about if the situation involved a true emergency? Instead of just needing help around the house, perhaps that same relative took a serious fall down the stairs and is headed to the emergency room in an ambulance. Now you’ve got no choice, and so you will have to abandon your previous plans. Again, though, do you find a way to take stock of the situation, rearrange whatever meetings or work you needed to get done? Or do you panic as you rush over to the hospital, unable to take any type of rational action?

People in Extreme Stress Benefit from Emotional Intelligence

For you, an emergency may only come about from time to time. What if, though, you were a first responder whose everyday experiences include at least one highly stressful situation? For example, the rescuers sent to the Surfside Condominium upon its collapse in June 2021 faced personal danger as well as the knowledge that there would be a tragic loss of life. How do people with these jobs find ways to keep going despite being in what is objectively an incredibly stressful situation?

According to Harbin Institute of Technology’s Syeda Maryam Dilawar and colleagues (2021), there is little empirical research that addresses this important question. As they note, “the research on decision-making under stress, especially in the context of emergency situations is rare” (p. 2989). The Harbin Institute researchers sought to fill this gap but also to explore the ways that this type of decision-making could be affected by an individual’s psychological resources.

Dilawar and his colleagues define emotional intelligence (EI) as “the ability to understand and regulate one’s emotions and to effectively process emotional information.” This quality should, the authors propose, be the key psychological resource that can help individuals when faced with a situation that could overwhelm their rational decision-making ability. As they note, “Individuals high in EI enjoy good mental health and are therefore capable of regulating their emotions and making sagacious decisions during tough times” (p. 2990).

The four components of EI that the authors investigated included emotional perception (recognizing emotions in the self and others), use of emotions (using emotions to gain desired outcomes), emotional understanding (comprehending the language of emotions), and managing emotions (harnessing and regulating emotions). Although EI can also be regarded as a personality trait, breaking it down into its 4 ability components means that it is a skill that potentially can be taught, a point that will become relevant after you read the study’s results.

Critical to the Harbin Institute study is that principle of Folkman and Lazarus that stress is in the eye of the beholder. This then begs the question of what makes some beholders view stress as a challenge and others as a threat. Here's where the role of emotional intelligence would come into play. People high in EI should regard an emergency situation as a challenge and are able to take charge. Their decision about what to do may be rational (i.e. based on logical thought processes) or intuitive (trusting their gut). In contrast, people low in EI would theoretically regard a situation calling for action as a threat, and either depend on others to decide for them or try to run away from the situation entirely.

How Does EI Help Emergency Personnel Make Good Decisions?

To test their hypotheses that EI would be a resource allowing emergency personnel to make decisions under duress, the Harbin Institute research team recruited participants from a wide range of sources from the city of Quetta (Pakistan) including emergency departments and trauma centers, and police stations and checkpoints with a high number of emergency situations. The final sample of 268 respondents included physicians, paramedics, police officers, and the personnel of paramilitary troops. The majority were in their 20s, although the ages of respondents ranged from 20 to over 50, most (71 percent) were male and 55 percent were married. Over half (57 percent) worked in medical settings.

To begin with, Dilawar and his fellow researchers assessed the perceived levels of occupational stress in their participants by asking them to rate the amount of stress associated with such situations as being injured on the job, having something traumatic happen, and their own health issues related to their occupation. The EI measure asked participants to rate themselves on such items as “I really understand what I feel,” “I have good understanding of the emotions of people around me,” and “I always tell myself I am a competent person.”

The instrument assessing decision style was designed to assess the 4 qualities of (1) intuitive (“When making decisions, I trust my inner feelings or reactions”), (2) rational (“I make decisions in a logical and systematic way”), (3) avoidant (“I avoid making important decisions until the pressure is on”), and (4) dependent (“I rarely make important decisions without consulting others”).

Ask yourself now how you tend to react when you’re facing a potentially overwhelming situation in your own life. What causes you to feel most stressed? What process do you go through when deciding how to respond? Does being in touch with your feelings, and those of others around you, make it more likely that you’ll find a way to manage the situation? Do you feel competent to do the right thing?

Across a series of analyses testing predictive values of the combined effects of EI and amount of occupational stress on decision styles, Dilawar showed consistently that “the combination of four components of EI… creates a unique construct that can moderate the relationships of stress and behavioral responses” (p. 3000). In other words, you can alter the impact of an emergency situation on your ability to make good decisions by being able to tap into the EI-related abilities that allow you to read the situation (and yourself), harness and manage your emotions, and put your feelings into words.

Specifically, these analyses revealed that people low in EI were most likely to use an avoidant decision style in a stressful situation and, indeed, the higher the level of stress, the greater their tendency to use avoidance. Clearly, avoidance is not a desirable way to handle an emergency when you’re needed to do so. A similar pattern emerged with respect to the dependent style of decision-making. In contrast, people high in EI took action when stressed either by following their instincts when there’s no time for deliberation, or by taking stock in a rational manner when there is.

How to Build Your Own EI When You’re Faced with Stress

As the authors conclude, “EI could be a very useful research for emergency personnel” (p. 3002). Indeed, because it’s an ability and not a trait, as conceptualized in this study, people low in EI can be trained to tap more productively into their emotions. Such training could “help them make sagacious decisions under stress” (p. 3003).

If you’re an ordinary person dealing with the type of stress such as drains on your time or the need to intervene to help out a friend or family member, there remain worthwhile lessons from the Dilawar et al. study. Stop and think about what goes on in your mind when these more typical stressful situations test your decision-making abilities. Can you label your own internal state? How well can you calm yourself by placing your emotions in check? Are you able to draw on reserves based on your ability to handle stress in the past? All of these are ways to build up your EI as a resource to use when things go wrong so that you don’t run away from the challenge or expect others to handle it for you.

Given that people high in EI perceive stressful circumstances as a challenge rather than as a threat, do you feel that you may even thrive when you have to conquer a difficult situation? Although you obviously wouldn’t wish it on a relative to become ill so that you can step in and save the day, if you’re high in EI you can take pride in the fact that you are able to solve the problems that others can’t.

To sum up, if you think of EI as an ability, it’s one you can use to bolster your day-to-day problem-solving abilities when stress has the potential to paralyze or overwhelm you. Given that stress is an inevitable part of life, once you recognize ways to label, understand, and harness your emotions, you’ll be that much more able to find fulfillment even from these many challenges that come your way.

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Dilawar, S.M., Durrani, D.K., Li, X. et al. Decision-making in highly stressful emergencies: The interactive effects of trait emotional intelligence. Current Psychology, 40, 2988–3005 (2021).