In this third and last part in this series on how to maintain personal sustainability under the pressure of modern work-life you will learn how training in emotional intelligence gives you effective tools to face your challenges and thus dramatically reduce stress. Part one introduced the concept of personal sustainability. It explained how the key to managing stress is to build enough personal renewal activities into our lives. Part two went into more detail about the negative effects of stress on our body and how practicing mindfulness can effectively help us recover from it. In Part three we look at why the human stress response is not effective in dealing with today’s problems and how we can improve it.

Stress is our body’s physical, emotional and mental reaction to a challenge or demand. The roots of our stress response developed millions of years ago to help us survive in the face of physical threats. However, most challenges today are no longer physical threats. Yet our bodies still react as if we were being physically threatened, as if there was a lion approaching our village. In part two of this series I explained how the increasing number of stressors in today’s world have led to chronic stress and contributed to the serious decline in health in our society.

Chronic stress is not only bad for your health. Our stress response has another significant drawback: the way we are programmed to respond under stress is not effective to face the challenges we are facing in the modern world. Solving today’s challenges requires communication and cooperation, but under pressure often our instinctive, aggressive, and emotional responses take over. This is not skillful. Often it makes the problem worse and even causes more stress.

Why do we react this way even though we know it is not effective? The reason is that going into flight or fight mode is unconscious and deeply wired into our nervous system. When we feel threatened or afraid, our amygdala, the alarm system in the brain that monitors for threats, hands over control to a very primitive operating and communication system that is based on instinct and emotion. Daniel Goleman calls this an “Amygdala hijack.”

I am sure most of us had moments when we couldn’t help but to snap back when someone said something rude to us. This snap may cause serious damage to a relationship. Or when we responded to an email in haste and anger only to regret it afterwards.

Today’s challenges require higher order thinking

What can we do to respond more effectively? The obvious solution is to take more time to reflect under stress. But this is not easy. Our instincts are wired to bypass our higher order thinking to act quickly. This is helpful in a combat situation, but tragically impairs key abilities we need to successfully solve today’s challenges. Instead we need complex problem solving, thoughtful responses, and creativity. In its place we tend to make quick impulsive and aggressive decisions without looking at the whole picture and accurately assessing the situation.

The failure of our stress response to be effective in our present situation is not just an individual problem. It is a serious evolutionary challenge for humanity. The world has changed tremendously in the last 250 years, accelerating exponentially in the last two decades. Just look at how our lives have changed since the release of the first iPhone eleven year ago. In comparison the rate of human evolution is going at snail pace. Significant changes take thousands of years.

Humans can learn to upgrade their response to stress

Our planet is facing enormous challenges. Our ability to make wise decisions and to cooperate to solve global challenges is significantly impaired by our outdated instincts. We humans need to urgently learn to upgrade our stress response.

Fortunately, neuroscience gives us the understanding we need to change. One of the biggest insights is that our nervous system and our brain have the capacity to adapt. This capacity to change is based on a simple principle: what we think and do changes the functioning and even the structure of our brain. The technical term is neuroplasticity. It is a very simple principle but has far reaching consequences.

Neuroplasticity indicates that we can change our brain by simply becoming more aware of our stress response and developing the capacity for “just saying no” to destructive emotional impulses. When we consciously choose more effective responses over time our brain will form neural pathways that support more effective coping. Unused pathways become less and less active. The process is not complicated. But it requires repeated practice. This is exactly what we do when we train our emotional intelligence competencies. We systematically train our ability to manage ourselves and our relationships.

A lot of times we are not fully aware of stress until its negative effects manifest. And naturally it is difficult to change something we are not aware of. This why we begin by developing our awareness, the first foundational skill of emotional intelligence. This enables us to notice the early signs of stress. Simply being more conscious of these signs helps the nervous system differentiate whether there is a physical threat or not. It can thus prevent our survival response from kicking in and our higher order thinking from being bypassed. It helps us to pause, reflect, and choose responses that create positives outcomes.

Once we have established this basic ability of managing stress, then we can develop a second level of stress management skills. Through cognitive behavioral training we can further develop our EI abilities. Examples of these abilities are resilience, adaptability, positive outlook, empathy, conflict management, and inspirational leadership.

Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence provide us with the means to upgrade the human nervous system for the 21st century. And this is not just an upgrade for our “software”, the way we process mentally, but even our “hardware”, the pathways in our physical brain. The principle of neuroplasticity tells us that if we practice consistently, we can rewire our brain.

Try this:

Think of a stressful situation you experienced recently.

  • Were you aware of the first signs of stress?
  • Were you able to pause and respond as effectively as you would have liked?

These two simple steps — watching out for signs of stress and taking time to reflect on your response — cultivate self-awareness and actively strengthen key neural pathways for better decision making.