Q: From our research, it appears that both in the business and education sector one of the ways EQ helps improve performance is through mitigating the effects of stress. People with higher EQ seem better able to manage the overload. What is the neurobiological explanation for this EQ advantage?
A: When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency, but in the worse-case create an ongoing hazard for performance. Attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand; our memory reshuffles to promote thoughts most relevant to what’s stressing us, and we fall back on overlearned habits. The brain’s executive centers – our neural circuitry for paying attention, comprehension, and learning – are hijacked by our circuitry for handling stress.
Self-regulation is one of the key abilities of EQ. People who can manage their emotions well are able to recover more quickly from stress arousal. This means, at the neural level, quieting the amygdala and other stress circuits, which frees up the capacities of the executive centers. Attention becomes nimble and focused again, our mind flexible, and our bodies relaxed. And a state of relaxed alertness is optimal for performance.
I go further into the relationship between stress and performance in more detail in my new digital-only book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.