Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, manage pain, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. EI can be thought of simply as the power house three's...our attention to emotions, clarity in understanding emotions, and emotion regulation.
When dealing with pain and all of it's 'ripple effects' our mindset and our emotions affect our perception of pain, how we deal with anxiety related to pain (or life stressors) and how we communicate with others about our pain. And the truth of the matter is, most of us aren’t taught how to identify or deal with our own emotions, or the emotions of others let alone how to deal with those emotions while living with chronic pain.
So why is understanding your EQ an important part of your pain management strategy?
According the article, 'Emotional Intelligence Moderates Anxiety Reactions in Chronic Health Conditions' as cited in the American Journal of Applied Psychology, Emotional Intelligence plays a major role in determining not only the experience of anxiety but it also helps to moderate the amount of anxiety experienced. In other words it represents an individuals ability and tendency to ‘work well with emotions’ and to regulate emotional responses in a way that allows for more effective coping
There is a lot to unpack here so let's start by understanding a little bit more about Emotional Intelligence and it's protective effect through mechanisms related to stress processing and regulation.
In one well known model of EI, as written by psychologist Daniel Goleman, 'The Mixed Model' has 5 key areas:
I have always said that those who live with chronic pain are acutely aware of their bodies. More aware of where they carry their tension, how they carry themselves, where they feel the pain. It's a matter of necessity when trying to describe their experience to their health care team and loved ones (if they are listening).
This is where we get to take the self awareness piece one step further. Improving your self-awareness is the first step to identifying any problem area you’re facing. Here are some ways to improve your self-awareness:
Emotional Intelligence is a highly effective tool when it comes to mitigating the pain through tough conversations. As you probably know all too well, communicating with loved ones and professionals can often be stressful and when tough conversations arise, the pain can become more intense. The more aware we are of our emotional state during these times the more able we are to respond accordingly so not to increase the physical pain.
Self Management: Once you know how your emotions work, you can start figuring out how to handle them. Proper self-management means controlling your outbursts to reduce stress, distinguishing between external triggers and internal over-reactions, acknowledging negative self talk and rewarding more self serving internal dialogue, and doing what’s best for your needs.
One key way to manage your emotions is to change your sensory input. If simply breathing through it is just not cutting it then try giving your physical body a shift to break the cycle. If you’re feeling lethargic, do some movement, get up out of the couch. If you’re stuck in an emotional loop, give yourself a metaphorical “snap out of it” slap. Anything that can give a slight 'shock' to your system or break the existing routine can help. Funneling emotional energy into something productive can also be very helpful. It’s alright to let overwhelming emotions stew inside you for a moment, if it’s not an appropriate time to let them out. However, when you do, rather than vent it on something futile, turn it into motivation instead by getting back to the things you enjoy such as crafting, hiking, reading, creating, or writing.
Motivation: When addressing motivation as it relates to emotional intelligence and chronic pain we’re talking about your inner drive to accomplish something. As Psychology today explains, there’s a section of your prefrontal cortex that lights up at the mere thought of achieving a meaningful goal. And yes, chronic pain warriors can have goals and aspirations as it is such a healthy and meaningful way to look ahead.
Empathy: Empathy is your most important skill for navigating your relationships. Empathy is important because it helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. It is typically associated with social behaviour and there is lots of research showing that greater empathy leads to more helping behaviour. And helping behaviour leads to a broader sense of well-being and vitality.
If you are living in chronic pain you know all too well that empathy can be a bit of a tough subject. There is often a lack of empathy from professionals and loved ones when it comes to addressing or communicating your pain experience. This often comes from a place of not knowing what you live day in and day out. Where empathy becomes an important part of your pain management is in the a) understanding of where you partner is emotionally so it can be addressed together and b) in communicating with them how having empathy could help mitigate your pain. Emotional intelligence helps to bring the awareness, the acknowledgement and the resolution all together.
So how can you practice empathy? In a word....listen!
You can’t experience everyone else’s lives to fully understand them, but you can listen. Listening involves letting someone else talk and then not countering what they say. It means putting aside your preconceptions or skepticism for a bit and allowing the person you’re talking to a chance to explain how they feel. Empathy is hard, but virtually every relationship you have can be improved at least marginally by waiting at least an extra ten seconds before you retake the conversation.
Seek to understand. Understanding is key to having empathy. When someone tells you about an experience that’s not your own, take some time to mull over how your life might be different if you experienced that on a daily basis. This especially rings true for loved ones who don't experience pain day in and day out.
By definition empathy means getting in the emotional dirt with someone else. Allowing their experiences to resonate with your own and responding appropriately. It’s okay to offer advice or optimism, but empathy also requires that you wait for the right space to do so. Be mindful of how they must feel and allow them space to feel it.
It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head - it is the unique intersection of both" David Caruso