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Why Stress Lowers Our Emotional Intelligence

Image of a blue maze painted on a wall to signify stress addiction.
Mary Nice sitting at a computer working with a blue shirt on and a plant in the foreground.
[Photo ID: Mary at her computer working]

If I could go back in time, the topic I WISH I had studied more is emotional intelligence. The data around its impact on career success and personal fulfillment are quite staggering, and it’s a topic that I believe is totally misunderstood.

Check out some recent data on the subject:

For a long time, I had an idea that emotional intelligence really was primarily about how we relate to others – being able to understand the emotions of others and react accordingly. While this is a component of emotional intelligence, the core of emotional intelligence is SELF-awareness.

Common Myths about Emotional Intelligence

Myth: Emotional intelligence is the same as being kind or compassionate.

Fact: While kindness and compassion can be related to emotional intelligence, they are different. Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize and understand emotions NOT just in other people but yourself too.

Myth: Being empathetic and emotionally intelligent is the same.

Fact: Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. It involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions and the emotions of others and to use this awareness to manage your own behavior and relationships effectively. While empathy is an important part of emotional intelligence, it is just one aspect of it. Emotional intelligence also involves the ability to manage and regulate your own emotions and to use emotions to make decisions and solve problems.

Myth: Emotional intelligence is fixed and cannot be improved.

Fact: While some people may naturally have higher levels of emotional intelligence, it is a skill that can be developed and improved through practice and self-awareness.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions and the emotions of others and to use this awareness in your own behavior and relationships effectively. Research has shown that EI can be an important predictor of career success AND personal fulfillment.

Self Awareness is at the core of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions, thoughts, and values. If you believe you’re self-aware, you may want to think again. 

A recent study on self-awareness showed that 95% of people say they are self-aware, but only 10-15% of people proved actually to be self-aware. 

And when you begin unpacking the layers of cultural norms, educational systems, childhood experiences, expectations, and more, it should be no surprise that naming and claiming how we ACTUALLY feel, what is ACTUALLY important to us, and what we ACTUALLY think is not a cake walk.

Why Stress Can Lower Our Emotional Intelligence

I kind of get off on stress. Early in life, it appeared as gossip and drama. Later in life, that same pattern presents itself as workaholism, identification as a “high performer,” and productivity ninja. 

And I’ve noticed throughout my life that this doesn’t just affect me, it affects EVERYONE around me. And now I know why,

Stress can hurt emotional intelligence for several reasons.

First, stress can interfere with your ability to perceive and interpret emotions in yourself and others accurately. When you are stressed, you may become anxious or agitated, which makes it harder to assess the emotional state of others accurately. This can lead to misunderstandings are miscommunications.

Second, stress can also affect your ability to regulate your emotions. When you are under stress, you may be more prone to outbursts or emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation. This can also make it harder for you to respond to the emotions of others in a compassionate and understanding way.

Finally, stress can affect your ability to use emotions to make decisions and solve problems. When stressed, you may be more likely to rely on your fight or flight response, leading to impulsive or reactive decision-making rather than thoughtful and strategic problem-solving.

Swell, so what do we do?

Step 1: Understand what’s happening during stress

I am a fan of knowing the biological mechanisms but if you don’t care, scroll past this part.

Your brain and your body are intertwined, and both respond to stress. Stress isn’t intrinsically bad for us. The tricky thing about being addicted to stress is that stress is unavoidable. In some quantities, it’s GOOD, and it’s needed. 

What actually is stress? Stress is a physiological response that occurs through a collection of neurons in the middle of your body that becomes activated when a stressor (environmental or psychological) triggers it. 

“The hub of our body’s system for handling stress smoothly and economically is called the HPA axis. This acronynic term describes the pathways and feedback loops linking the hypothalamus – the small, crucial area in the center of the brain whose role is to keel our body in a healthful, balanced state – with the pitutitary galnd at the top of our brain stem and the adrenal gland that sits atop our kidneys.” 

Physician Gabor Mate: The Myth of Normal

When those neurons are activated, your entire mind-body system is responding:

Part 1 of the stress response:

StepFunctionResponse to Stress
Amygdala signalsEmotional processingThe first responder sends a signal to the hypothalamus that something is wrong.
Hypothalamus respondsCommand center that communicates with the body and is involved in functions like breathing and temperature maintenance, among others.Activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) through the adrenal glands. 
Adrenal glands respondHelp regulate metabolism and immune systemBegin pumping epinephrine and norepinephrine
Epinephrine (AKA adrenaline) and norepinephrine are releasedIncrease cardiac output during stressCauses the heart to beat faster, blood pressure increases, airways open, increases alertness. Triggers the breakdown of fat to increase glucose levels.
Glucose is releasedEnergyTriggered by adrenaline to supply energy to the body.

After the initial surge of adrenaline subsides, the hypothalamus activates the next part of the stress response system, known as the HPA axis.

Part 2 of the stress response:

HPA ResponseFunctionResponse to Stress
Hypothalamus activatesCommand center that communicates with the body and is involved in functions like breathing and temperature maintenance, among others..Releases corticotropin-releasing hormone 
Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is releasedCentral regulator of the HPA axis.Increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and signals the pituitary gland.
Pituitary gland signaledSecretes hormonesTwo parts of the pituitary gland release hormones.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is releasedStimulates adrenalsTravels down to the adrenal glands
Adrenal glands signaledHelp regulate metabolism and immune systemIn this phase, the adrenal glands now produce steroid hormones. In the adrenals, the ACTH bind to raptors to produce cortisol.
Cortisol is releasedMobilizes the body’s energy to ensure the body can cope with stressorsIncreases glucose (sugars) in the blood stream.

Takeaway: The brain and the body are intrinsically linked and are one system. You can not separate the effects of instincts, emotions, and behaviors from what happens in your body – whether those things happen knowingly or unknowingly.

Step 2: Know when stress becomes detrimental 

We all have periods in life where we have several weeks or a couple of months where there is more stress. It’s inevitable when we are dealing with a lot, either at work or home, and you are near your max. These periods do not necessarily equate to chronic stress. 

Think about stress across a continuum:

Short-TermMedium-TermChronic Stress
TimeframeMinutes to hoursDays to WeeksMonths to Years
ResponseHealthy response to a challenging situation:
– Slam on brakes
– Argument with your partner
– Criticism from your boss
Response to periods where you’re dealing with a lot:
– Major deadlines
– Dealing with an illness
– Jam-packed family calendar for a season
Long-term shifts begin to happen in your body to cope with the stress:
– Sustained caring of an aging parent or chronically ill child
– Job that creates sustained stress
– General feelings of stress all of the time
Sleep ImpactsSleep generally unaffectedDifficulty sleeping a few nights a months or for a defined period of timeDifficulty sleeping more than a few nights a month

During chronic stress, the brain/body response is working in overdrive. Suddenly a system designed to keep you safe during acute moments is always on, and those brain/body responses don’t turn off. 

Takeaway: Not all stress is bad stress. When you begin to identify that you have chronic stress, it’s time to consider where that comes from and how to address it.

Step 3: Recognize If You Have Chronic Stress

When I started to understand the physiological reactions of stress and better understand what causes a stress response, I began to wonder. 

I don’t identify with difficulty sleeping, but then I realized that I had been self-medicating my sleep for years. I couldn’t sleep well without help – from wine to CBD supplements to other supplements. 

And the further I went into the literature, the more it made sense:

  • I was always bored unless I was engaging in activities that I now see cause a stress response in the body (ex: scrolling social media)
  • I couldn’t sit without feeling like I needed to be doing something.
  • I had trouble being where I was, always thinking about the next thing (I would literally speed read CHICK LIT books to what…get to the next one? So weird.)

This had become my resting state. What once presented itself as me engaging in gossip, lying, and drama now presented itself as productivity and compulsiveness and was marked by a lot of guilt.

My brain became dependent on chemicals like adrenaline and dopamine for prolonged times with chronic stress. So rather than decreasing after a stressor has passed, I had a drippy faucet of these neurotransmitters. In a weird way, stress made me feel worthy and valuable.

Takeaway: You can experience stress even when life is not stressful if you find yourself addicted to stress.

Step 4: Determined my stress addiction connected to beliefs about stress

WHY? Why, over time, had stress become this new always-on state?  

The environment we were raised in

I do not have experience as a child with big T trauma. But the more I understood about stress, the more I realized that it didn’t necessarily take big T Trauma, although that certainly is a predictor of chronic stress. 

I am a sensitive person. I feel a lot. I take in a lot. As a child, rather than this being seen as a positive, I heard from my dad about how I was “too sensitive” or “dramatic.” I had to learn early on that my feelings weren’t made to be felt and expressed but rather shoved down, which produces stress. It drove a tendency for me to perform rather than be who I was.

Dr. Mate continues, “Children, especially highly sensitive children, can be wounded in multiple ways: by bad things happening, yes, but also by good things not happening, such as their emotional needs for attunement not being met, or the experience of not being seen and accepted, even by loving parents. Trauma of this kind does not require overt distress or misfortune of the sort mentioned above and can also lead to the pain of disconnection from the self, occurring as a result of core needs not being satisfied.”

The culture we live in

I was the perfect target to enter the workforce. Stress felt normal (although I didn’t recognize it then). I needed validation and approval from outside sources. And I got something oddly satisfactory when I became the doormat for everyone’s wants and needs. 

This is no one’s fault, and it’s somewhat the reality of being human. We all do the best we can with the cards we are dealt, and for the most part, we do what we think is right or is so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even recognize it.

I believed stress and suffering equaled value and worthiness.

In other words, if I’m suffering, you can see I’m trying.

Be honest with yourself and explore if you are using stress and suffering as a marker of success. I certainly have/do, and I can get stuck in battle mode when I move too quickly through stressful times. I constantly think about something Matt, my Pathly reflector, said: “your brain is made for coherence and not the truth.” It wants to make sense of the situation.

So, if stress reinforces the idea that you are valuable and worthy, your brain seeks out stress.

Takeaway: Stress doesn’t always have to be connected to an event or a series of events. You may be highly functional BECAUSE of stress which is culturally revered. Stress may be a large part of your identify.

Step 5: Set the foundation to recover from chronic stress.

With understanding how stress works, why chronic stress is dangerous, and your beliefs about stress, here is the hopeful part. 

This is science. The brain/body is resilient, but you must know how to help it. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the things that have helped me:

Get GOOD sleep.

Sleep is a loaded topic, and everyone needs to explore why they may not be getting good sleep. For me, it was a brain that couldn’t shut off. I don’t have a magic solution here; I sure wish I did. But tactically, what helped MOST for me was putting down my screens an hour before bed. 

Focus on serotonin

Certain neurotransmitters aid in helping you get out of the stress cycle. Serotonin is a well-being neuromodulator that typically produces a feeling that we have what we need. There are two ways to naturally release serotonin:

Social connection – humans are excellent, but the good news for those of us who sometimes find humans tricky is that pets can do the same thing!

Play or hobbies – The brain can begin to adapt when it’s open and receptive, and there is nothing better than play. Choose an activity that you love, that challenges you, and that is low stakes. Do it for an hour a week. An excellent place to start is what you loved to do when you were a child: dancing, tennis, building legos, coloring.

Explore supplements – Supplements are not a one-size fits all solution. does an excellent job of centralizing the studies you can look at depending on your individual situation, but here are two to explore:

L-Theanine – This supplement produces a neurotransmitter called GABA, which can help slow your brain down. It can take that edge off that makes you feel like you have to complete your to-do list before you can chill out and help you manage stress.

Ashwagandha – Shown to reduce cortisol in otherwise a healthy but stressed individual.


Movement is essential for several reasons. It reduces cortisol and stimulates the production of mood elevators. The most impactful thing a new movement practice gave me was better sleep. 

Takeaway: There are tools you can begin to implement that set the foundation for you to get out of chronic stress, but it takes intentionality.

Step 6: Begin the longer-term work of changing your relationship to stress 

When you are dealing with nearly an identity that is wrapped up in stress and certainly a belief system that stress makes you worthy, there is no magic cure. With our brain’s incredible ability to adapt based on what you’re telling it, we can change our relationship to stress through intentionality and repetition.

Recognize when you’re being pulled into stressful situations

You can’t, and shouldnt avoid all stress. But beginning to recognize when you are seeking stress is game-changing. For me, it presented itself in two primary ways:

  1. The inability to sit without feeling like I needed to be doing something.
  2. The chronic tendency to scroll social media. 

I still feel those, but I’m faster to recognize them and am BETTER at catching myself and redirecting

Establish meaningful boundaries to show YOURSELF that your value isn’t attached to stress

Sometimes, boundaries aren’t just for getting other people to respect your needs but for you to practice respecting your own needs. Write down 2-3 boundaries to which you must hold yourself to show YOURSELF that your value is inherently separate from your accomplishments. 

The two that I’m really working on:

  1. No meetings after 1:00 on Fridays
  2. Phone on do not disturb during work

Increase focus when it’s needed

I found that stress followed me because I wasn’t getting done what I needed to get done during the day. In our meeting-heavy, fast-paced culture, we must block time to focus and get the work we need done. Sometimes, this means taking control of your schedule. You can use the corporate scheduler tool to explore how to do this.

Practice radical acts of worthiness

I’m working on this one hard right now. To divorce from the belief that stress and suffering make you worthy, focus on genuinely hearing yourself and taking care of your needs.


  1. Do what you want to do, especially when it’s inconvenient – If you are especially busy, take a lunch break to go sit on a bench and read a book.
  2. Pay for aftercare one day and spend the afternoon alone doing something that lights you up. Teach your brain that checking things off the to-do list doesn’t equate to value and worth.
  3. Listen to yourself and your own intuition when things are quiet – More beautiful words from Matt – “In the absence of something is where longing comes from.” Recognize your longing. Ask yourself questions, and don’t ignore that longing.
  4. Question your immediate thoughts – This can be a bit in conflict with number two. Still, often when we are wired for stress and acceptance, our thoughts may not be an accurate portrayal of the situation. Separate facts from thoughts. For me, inaccurate thoughts typically arise in a moment of stress, while my intuition shows up when it’s quiet.

Takeaway: Breaking an addiction to stress is a long-term process that must address the root of what stress brings you. 

Set the Foundation to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

In this upcoming series, I am going to go deep into various topics that will help raise your emotional intelligence to not only help you as a leader but increase your personal fulfillment.

To do that, you must first understand the role that stress could be playing. Understand that you are not necessarily choosing a stressful life. You may unknowingly put yourself in stressful situations because it’s a place of comfort for you. The stress brings something of value to you, thus the addiction to stress. 

I hope this has helped you understand the role of stress, how you can become addicted, and things you may want to try to move forward.

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