Written by: Jenny Smith
Becoming emotionally intelligent is one of the best things you can do for yourself and support in your children. Emotions are the driving force behind much of our behaviour and if we are unconscious of them we become blindly led into stressful reactions and situations which overtime result is our stress levels going sky high and our nervous system being permanently wired. The two main components to emotional wellbeing are stress management and emotional awareness.
Recognise the problem
Becoming aware of something is always the first step to making changes. If something stays in our unconscious then we remain blissfully aware of it until whatever reason makes it known to us. There are lots of things that can get in the way of becoming aware of ourselves and the first tool in the kit to emotional well-being is self-noticing. Pay attention to your relationship with stress, see if you can notice what are the five main things that regularly cause you stress?
They can be outside factors such as noise, traffic queues, comments from a family member etc or they can be internal stressors like self-critisism, worry or dwelling on the negative. Make a list of the top five that you experience and then note what your signs of being stressed are. Is it that your heart beats faster? Do your muscles tighten or does your mouth go dry? Does your breath become more shallow, do your thoughts start racing? The more detail you can be aware of the better!
Recognise the pattern
It may at first be tricky to be honest with yourself and tune into the detail of your experience of stress. Culturally there is a strong message to keep busy and soldier on and keep our focus outside of ourselves rather than within. The most important things to notice are what your default reaction to stress is, is it to get angry? To withdraw and shut down? Or to freeze?
Once you know your pattern you can spot it happening a lot sooner and start to do something about it. There are two important approaches to managing stress, one of them is in the moment and the other is through an ongoing practice of some sort that is designed to meet the needs of your default pattern. If your stress shows through anger then something like mediation that quietens the mind can help and if you withdraw then something more energetic like yoga or tai chi will bring you back into your energy. The in the moment support that you can draw on is by tuning into your senses and doing whatever is possible to deepen your experience of them in whatever situation you are in. If you are driving you can feel your hands on the wheel, your feet on the floor of your car, you can notice what you can see and hear from sounds outside the car or from music that you are playing. If you are cooking then you can again really feel the contact of your hands on the ingredients and implements, you can smell the scents of all the foods that you are creating, you can taste something and so on.
The more consciously you can do this the better, its not about stuffing your face with cookie dough whenever a stressful situation occurs! Rather it is about shifting your attention away from thoughts that are building the stress up in your mind to the physical and sensual situation that surrounds you in any moment.
Be aware of your feelings
Emotional awareness is the other factor in emotional intelligence. When you are aware of your feelings you can think clearly and make creative decisions. You can communicate well with others and show empathy and compassion. Similarly to noticing your signs of stressed you may have learned to ignore your feelings. Culturally intellect has been give higher value than emotion for a long time and because feeling are not always rational and are harder to explain many people have been judged for simply expressing themselves and consequently turn to distractions such as alcohol, talking a lot, overly worrying or being constantly plugged in to a phone or other electronic device.
To strengthen your emotional intelligence means developing your ability to become more aware of and manage your moment to moment ever changing emotional experience. Intense feelings don’t last long unless the person starts to mentally dissect them again and again which will cause the emotional energy to get stuck and cause problems.
What do you notice when you talk about your feelings?
It is helpful to explore your relationship to specific feelings to see if you are holding any limiting beliefs. Think about anger, sadness and fear and see if you can identify what you feel about each one. Notice how you talk about each feeling, whether you are comfortable to say that you feel angry or scared or how comfortable or uncomfortable you feel when a friend or family member expresses any of these feelings. Anger has a bad press but it’s only uncontrolled anger that is potentially destructive, healthy anger motivates us and connects us to our passions, sadness tells us to slow down and take some time to be still and fear is often the bottom feeling beneath strong anger or depression. Using Mindfulness alongside stress recognition is a great way to support yourself to become more skilled at tolerating difficult feelings.