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Emotional Intelligence: The basis of good mental health

14th May 2021

Having higher levels of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is known to promote positive mental health and is linked to reduced anxiety and stress.The good news is that EI is considered a flexible skill that we can develop and improve throughout our lives. So, it’s a skill worth investing in.1

Thinking before we act

Emotions guide our thoughts and move us towards certain kinds of action, but what exactly is Emotional Intelligence?2 In a nutshell, EI is the ability to understand and manage our own emotions and the emotions of others. It can be thought of as the psychological link between the thinking and feeling parts of our brain, and the ability to maintain a healthy balance between these. People with high levels of EI can keep their emotional brain contained, and apply logic and reasoning, even at times of discomfort or stress.

In his book “Emotional Intelligence”1, David Goleman sets out 5 key elements relevant to EI:

  • Self-awareness - the ability to recognise our own emotions and understand how they can impact ourselves and those around us

  • Self-regulation - the ability to manage our own emotions

  • Empathy - the ability to recognise and understand the emotions of others

  • Social skills - the ability to accept and manage the emotions of others in a positive way

  • Motivation - the ability to use emotions to drive behaviour and action productively

Below we discuss a little about each of these elements and consider ways in which we can work on each of these skills to develop our emotional intelligence.

Self-awareness

Our day-to-day experiences are filled with emotion. To develop self-awareness, we can try taking time to notice how we’re feeling and consider how our body is responding. Do you feel tense? Is your heart racing? Are you shaking? We can also apply this principle to our mind. What are you thinking about? How might this determine your course of action? By reflecting on our emotional responses and considering our own strengths and weaknesses, we can gain the insights we need to use our self-awareness to our advantage, and the advantage of others.

Self-regulation

By developing our self-awareness, we put ourselves in a better position to enhance our self-regulation and improve our ability to manage our feelings, thoughts, or actions in a positive way. This can help us to maintain focus, make decisions and engage well with others. Self-regulation can be supported in different ways. For example, when challenging situations arise, try to pause and take stock. Deep breathing exercises can be a useful way to keep calm. By taking the time to step back for a moment, we should find that we’re more able to reframe the event in its context, remind ourselves that the way we’re feeling isn’t permanent, and move forward in a positive direction. Some strategies to improve self-regulation require more practice, but regular sleep and exercise, eating healthily and staying hydrated will all help with this.

Empathy

It’s not always easy to recognise other people’s emotions, but by taking notice of facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, we can improve our ability to read the emotions that other people experience. To understand someone else’s emotions, we can try to put ourselves in their position and see things from their perspective. People’s emotional responses are unique to them. Empathy doesn’t mean we have to agree with their perspective; it means accepting that their point of view can be different. Listening to understand rather than listening to respond can help us to do this.

Social skills

It’s important for us to interact with others and communicate in ways that help us problem solve, resolve conflict, provide constructive feedback, and inspire. Through understanding and accepting the emotions of others, and through our own self-awareness and self-regulation, we can increase our ability to do this.

It’s also worth remembering that expressing appreciation, and showing kindness shows humility and strength. It helps to build trust and respect, and ultimately improves our social connections with those around us.

Motivation

Sometimes, the challenges life throws our way can make it difficult to maintain the motivation we need to keep working towards our goals. Through recognising our emotions and managing them effectively, we are more likely to be able maintain our levels of motivation.

Stress can be used to channel productivity and maintain passion. On days when negative feelings or thoughts are taking over, try to focus on finding three good things about your day and writing them down. If you’re struggling to find the positives, you can use these emotions to help drive positive change by setting new goals. To do this, allow yourself time to take pride in your achievements so far, focus on your values and what matters to you, and move forward to overcome the barriers.

Developing our EI is essential to promoting positive mental health, and as a learned skill, it’s something we can start improving today just by committing to implementing some simple strategies in our everyday life. The small things can make a big a difference!

In the words of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”


References:

  1. Goleman, D (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books
  2. Keltner, D.C (2012-2019). Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work. University of California, Berkeley. Available at: www.edX.org