Emotional Intelligence and the Biology of Behavior-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Why Emotional Intelligence?

Heart and Head

It is easy to get caught up in negative thinking, misinterpreting our emotions, cut off from our intuition; all of which can lead to painful consequences. As a clinical psychologist, I am an enthusiastic supporter of emotional intelligence. This post focuses on building your emotional intelligence as a skillset that helps you:

  • Improve your quality of life
  • Enhance your relationships
  • Reduce your stress
  • Develop efficiency in decision making
  • Improve functioning in your workplace

“This post breaks down the biological underpinnings involved with emotion and perception. Learn five strategies to building your emotional intelligence…”
-Dr. Schwartz

Emotion, Perception, and Behavior

busy room

Imagine you arrive at a party. You were invited by a new friend; and you think there is potential for this friendship to develop into something more. You’re just not sure if the feelings are mutual. As you enter the party you scan the room and to your surprise you see your friend deeply engaged in what appears to be an intimate conversation. You feel your heartbeat quicken and the blood drain from your face. Your mind speeds up. Are you seeing things correctly? Maybe you completely misread the connection. Should you go over and say hello? Is there anyone else you can talk to? Maybe you should leave; your friend hasn’t seen you yet. You feel confused, sad, and jealous. What do you do?

Let’s break down this complex chain of events. It is best to think of our emotions of as combination of three forces: our nervous system, our endocrine system, and our environment. What our senses take in facilitate reactions; some of which we are aware of and some of which occur without conscious reflection. Within the brain, we have very small structures (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus) that scan our environment to detect emotional nuances in facial expressions and body language.  We draw upon memories as reference points and infer meaning about our current situation based upon these previous experiences. According to the work of Candace Pert, the nervous and endocrine systems send a downpour of neurochemicals and hormones that combine to create feelings that facilitate changes throughout the entire body. We have thoughts and perceptions based upon these internal reactions that collectively inform our behaviors.

To Feel or Not to Feel

You remember that time that you were hurt by your ex who cheated on you and decide it is not worth taking the risk again. You turn to leave but before you have a chance to escape the room unnoticed your friend looks up and calls you over. Reluctantly you walk over but you are quickly introduced to a long-time friend who has heard all about you and was looking forward to meeting you. You take a sigh of relief and smile feeling a little embarrassed but relieved.

What if you had left? This is just one of the potential pitfalls that can result from misinterpreting our emotions. When we jump too quickly to conclusions or don’t pause for reflection it is actually quite easy and common to make decisions based upon our reactions rather than rooted in reality. Sometimes this leads to painful losses that could have otherwise been avoided. When emotions overwhelm us we can feel flooded and have a hard time effectively thinking our way through any situation. Daniel Goleman refers to this process as “Emotional Hijacking” in which we behave based on impulse rather than reflective choice.

emotional intelligence Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Over-reactive responses sit on one end of the emotions continuum whereas a lack of attention to our emotional world can also leave us feeling lost. Most of us long for a close connection with ourselves and others. However, when we are fearful or intolerant of emotions we tend to feel cut off, like something is missing, or as if we are just going through the motions. Emotions help give us purpose, meaning and the experience of being alive. You know you are having an emotion because of the sensations you have in your body. The butterflies in your stomach, lump in your throat, beating of your heart, and the warmth in your face feel. And notably, according to Antonio Damasio we need to feel in order to have successful relationships, have empathy, and make effective decisions.

Enhance your Emotional Intelligence

Understanding the steps and skills that build your emotional intelligence can help you avoid unnecessary losses:

  • Balance thinking and feeling. Notice your tendencies as you approach relationships or tough decisions in your life. Do you primarily think your way around obstacles or feel your way through? Dr. Marsha Linehan developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy; an application of Zen Buddhism Principles to psychology, suggests that an optimal approach to problem solving is to cultivate Wise Mind. Wise mind integrates our emotional mind and reasonable mind to combine the wisdom of our intuition with our capacity for logical analysis.  Begin to observe your habitual approach to problem solving and when you feel stuck try exploring a new approach. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Einstein and Problem solving

  • Body awareness: Practice increasing awareness of body sensation as a tool to increase your emotional intelligence. Sensing our physical sensations ground us into the present moment and can increase our awareness of our emotional world when we feel disconnected. When you feel overwhelmed, present centered awareness of your physical body can calm the stormy seas.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can provide a valuable format to cultivate the skills that allow us to live in the present rather than ruminating on events of the past or fears of the future. Mindfulness invites us to stay in description. It is easy to jump to conclusions based upon our interpretations of our experience. Rather than quickly reacting to the situation, take a moment to intentionally slow down and describe what is happening now. Use all of your senses: “What I see is…, what I hear is…, what I smell is…, etc.”
  • Track your emotional impact: We are not always aware of the effects that we have in the world. Begin to challenge yourself to increase your awareness of the emotional influence that you have on people around you. Referred to by Susan Scott as your “emotional wake,” this concept refers to how we come across to others. Think of the image of a boat moving through the slow zone and the effects of the boat’s wake on the calm waters. Take a moment to reflect on the impact you have on others when you leave a conversation or walk out of the room.

emotional wake

  • Emotional intelligence in relationships: I can sometimes get upset with my husband when I interpret his behaviors as a reflection of his feelings about me. For example, while it can seem silly now, the simple action of him walking ahead of me would leave me feeling hurt, angry, and uncared for. I initially approached him with blame and frustration and not surprisingly received a defensive response in return. However, once I recognized that I was interpreting our difference in pace as an uncaring response from him I challenged myself to see this as an assumption. I was able to name my experience as my own feelings and could make a request from him that didn’t blame him, ultimately facilitating a more satisfying response. Tools such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication create an excellent structure for success.

Further reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trauma trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook to stay current with all my writings.


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Emotional Intelligence and the Biology of Behavior-Dr. Arielle Schwartz — 1 Comment

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