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3 Great Strategies for Accessing Emotional Intelligence in Times of Crisis 

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There’s no question that we need to access our emotional intelligence more than ever right now, and yet the hardest time to do it is when we’re in crisis mode. Everything about C-19 is triggering our survival emotions, typically known as fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. The trouble is that survival emotions result in survival responses and they can be far from ideal in a crisis of this kind.

Survival responses stem from the oldest part of our brain – the prehistoric brain. They were designed to save us from life-threatening predators, not help us navigate the biggest global health and economic challenge in 50+ years. Let’s face it:

  • It’s great to have adrenaline pumping round our body and speeding up our whole system when we need to run for our lives. But not so great when we need to sit things out and work up a plan.
  • It’s good to have our reaction times massively sped up when we need to make immediate life or death decisions – Daniel Kahnemann’s “low road” for anyone who has read ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’ But not when we need to be able to reflect and respond – be response-able – rather than react or indeed over-react.
  • It’s ideal to have our field of vision narrowed so we can focus purely on the threat in that moment when a savage animal is about to rip us to pieces. But not when we need to see the bigger picture and consider the medium to long-term as we do now.

You get the point!

Without accessing your emotional intelligence, there is no cognitive intelligence. Your thoughts and consequent behaviours will be driven by your survival emotions and responses – reactive, impulsive and thus often destructive.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence So Important Right Now?

Accessing your emotional intelligence means understanding and managing your own emotions. It also means you recognise and care about the impact those emotions have on the people around you. Emotions are contagious due to the mirror neurons in our nervous system; they can be hugely beneficial when used appropriately and highly toxic when not. Lastly, it means seeking to influence and support others in managing their own emotions – an important, yet challenging leadership skill in times like these.

Depending on your natural levels of emotional intelligence, this will be much easier when you are feeling positive, grounded and in balance. It is challenging, even for people with high levels of emotional intelligence when your whole world has been turned upside-down and inside-out, as ours has over the past few weeks.

But without it, more businesses will fail, more jobs will be lost and more relationships will be broken.

So, what are some useful strategies you can employ to access more emotional and hence cognitive intelligence during this crisis?

3 Great Strategies for Accessing Emotional Intelligence


We have seen how the survival or fear system in the body speeds everything up making us more hyper-stressed, more reactive and more impulsive. This is the sympathetic nervous system in action. By slowing down, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – the one that makes us feel relaxed and in control. The great news is that they work together: as one becomes more active, the other becomes less so.

So here are some top tips to slow the system down:

  • Breathe from the diaphragm. Simply focus on your breathing, meditate, use mindfulness apps, sink into a warm, fragrant bath or do virtual exercise classes such as yoga or pilates. Anything that encourages you to engage in diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Become fully present. When you wash your hands or take a shower, notice what you can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. When you eat your meals, do the same – it’s quite a revelation! When you walk in the park or the countryside, truly experience the beauty of nature – what can you see that you’ve never noticed before, what can you hear if you stop and listen and what can you feel or sense like the wind on your face? It is quite magical.
  • Experiment with physically slowing down. When you are manically cleaning your teeth, decide to do it at half the speed. When you are rushing your breakfast, give yourself an extra 15 minutes. When you are stressing about a work deadline, take a few minutes out to do some diaphragmatic breathing. When you are charging along in the park, decide to dawdle and see what that feels like for a change. You could even run in slow motion every now and again!

And remember Lao Tzu’s excellent quote: “Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.”

2. Recognise & Change Your Emotional Triggers 

One great way to minimise the negative impact of survival emotions is to avoid the specific scenarios that trigger them. In times of crisis, seemingly small things can trigger us and result in disproportionate responses or behaviours.

To clarify, acknowledging and experiencing emotions right now is natural and an important part of the process we are all going through. You should also cut yourself and others slack when it comes to emotions in times of such crisis. It’s not about judgement or blame; it’s about curiosity, empathy and compassion.

But you will also know when you have over-reacted, when you have ‘lost the plot’ or taken yourself to a really unresourceful place. And those are the times I’m talking about here.

So, what triggered it? Was it watching the news, looking at social media, interacting with certain people in your life, a specific time of day or daily event with your partner or kids? Everyone is having to adjust to this current new normal and it’s not easy.

Work out what is triggering you and either make the necessary changes in your life, if they are entirely within your control, or discuss with relevant parties the possible solutions that will improve the situation for both of you.

It will make a huge difference to the way you feel.

3. Intercept Early

Given the extremity of the situation we find ourselves in, it’s likely that we will still get triggered at times. After all, we are only human. If, and when, you do then simply notice the early warning signs.

These might include:

  • Shallow breathing or even feeling as if you’ve stopped breathing altogether
  • Your heart pumping, racing or palpitating
  • Your face flushing red or feeling hot
  • Your hands becoming cold or clammy
  • Your mouth feeling dry

All physiological symptoms of the sympathetic nervous system in action.

Once you determine what your own physical symptoms are, you can become aware early in the process that you’ve been triggered and that you’re heading in a direction you’d rather not head. You can then take the appropriate actions to intercept the likely behaviour.

These might include taking a big deep breath and exhaling for as long as you can, counting from 1-10, walking away from the situation, switching off what you were listening to, closing down your laptop, distracting yourself with a different activity (even making a cuppa). Whatever it takes to stop you in your tracks and give you time to reflect, reframe and reset your intention.

This simple strategy has helped a lot of my clients over the years with quite transformative effects.


Accessing your emotional intelligence is vital in times of crisis and yet it’s the most challenging time to do it. Our sympathetic nervous system or survival system is autonomic, fast and all-consuming. Great in immediate life and death situations but far from ideal when we need to engage our brains, think strategically and harness our relationships. Slowing down, recognising and dealing with emotional triggers and intercepting early are all ways we can avoid our emotions over-riding our rationality. In other words, ways we can access our emotional intelligence and use our all-important emotions wisely.

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