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  • Trauma: A barrier or an opportunity for Emotional Intelligence?

    All research in recent years has predicted that true success may not come only through academic excellence or a high IQ, but it’s our level of emotional intelligence that ultimately determines how successful we turn out as individuals in our adult lives. 


    Emotional intelligence(EI) has become quite a fancy term in the commercial world these days. Daniel Goleman, an internationally recognized psychologist and author of a New York Times best-selling book on emotional intelligence, popularized this term. 


    But the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) has been evolving for almost a century now. This concept was first known as “social intelligence” and was first studied by another psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920. He defined social intelligence as “an ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls – to act wisely in human relationships”. He studied how people and animals learn, through decades of experiments and observation. And it was around the 1960s that the concepts of social intelligence were first applied to the commercial world.


    What is Emotional Intelligence(EI)? In simple terms, EI is one’s ability to be aware of their own and others’ emotions and to know how to regulate them. For the purpose of awareness, and simplicity, I will share Daniel Goleman’s five key elements to emotional intelligence, as I found them very simple to understand. These are:


    1. Self-Awareness
    2. Self-Regulation
    3. Motivation
    4. Empathy 
    5. Social Skills


    As a Psychiatrist, I have seen people fall short of some of these key elements to become emotionally intelligent. For example, clients who struggle with anxiety or social anxiety, face challenges in the social skills area. Even though they may have amazing awareness, they are unable to further perpetuate their skills, due to the inability to reach out, network, or even assert themselves.


    Then there are people who struggle with depression, many of whom are greatly empathic, but they lack motivation due to their mental illness. 


    Those on the autism spectrum also struggle with their emotional intelligence due to the inability to process their own emotions, understand others’ emotions, as well regulate their own emotions. While they may come across as lacking empathy, that is not always the case.


    But what I see as one of the biggest barriers to one’s EI, in both personal, and professional settings, be it in my clients or in the workforce in general, is; Trauma.

    Our past traumatic experiences can have a substantial effect on our emotional intelligence or our ability to come across as emotionally intelligent people. 


    By trauma, I mean psychological trauma or any adverse experience which has had a drastic effect on a person’s thinking, processing, feeling, memory formation, personality, attitude, behaviors, and perception.


    A 1998 study of 17,000 adults found that 1 in 10 people have experienced at least one adverse event in childhood. This includes psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, domestic violence, living with family members who were using substances, or struggled with mental illness, were suicidal or criminally involved (among many others). 25% of adults had experienced 2 or more adverse childhood events. 


    There have been countless studies conducted, on the effects of trauma on one’s level of EI, but I’d like to share with you what my observation has been, having treated thousands of clients with PTSD, or complex trauma-related symptoms in my two decades of practice as a psychiatrist. Besides my personal experience as well, of being born and raised in Kashmir, a conflict-ridden area, in the North of India, where decades of political unsettlement going on between the Indian government and Kashmiri natives, has left every single human being directly or indirectly traumatized by that warlike situation. 

    Trauma impacts many areas of our brain, but there are three areas where trauma leaves a lasting impact.


    1. The amygdala: Our fight or flight area. This is an area that is the most hyperactive in folks who have experienced trauma.
    2. The hippocampus: Also called the “time center”. It plays a key role in memory and learning. It saves our memories like files on a computer. During traumatic experiences, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect the hippocampus. This can lead to an inability to form important memories, which can in turn decrease our level of self-awareness.
    3. The prefrontal cortex: An area that is responsible for regulating our emotions, judgment, learning, or processing emotions. 


    Trauma throws our bodies into acute stress mode and leads to increased production of cortisol, which has detrimental effects on our neurons. In fact, studies show that if babies are exposed to trauma in their intrauterine life, or in their mothers’ wombs, the maternal cortisol can affect their brains. This may be the first seed in the development of intergenerational trauma.


    When we experience trauma, our brains think, perceive, and act differently than those who are not exposed to trauma. Due to a hyperactive amygdala, we are in a constant flight or fight mode. We may be hyper-vigilant, anxious, or stressed, leaving us preoccupied with our worries. We may come off as “too much in our heads” or even self-absorbed.


     Being self-aware and aware of others’ emotions needs us to be attentive. For that our minds need to be relaxed and present. But when we have trauma, we may not have a full grasp on this skill. Thus, we stay ignorant of our own emotions as well as the emotions of others.


    The hippocampus, as confirmed by countless MRI/FMRI studies, shows that people who are diagnosed with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus. This may lead to difficulties retrieving important information from the past, or developing healthy memories. Memories help us connect the dots, have a solid sense of identity, live an authentic life, and be aware of our strengths and our weaknesses. Imagine being unable to retrieve key files from a computer. I doubt it would be able to work effectively. 


    These gaps in our ability to retrieve important information from our past may lead to confusion or even anxiety. We may struggle with low self-esteem, identity crises, and thus it can prevent us from coming across as authentic and emotionally intelligent individuals. This is despite the resilience and strength built within an individual who has survived trauma.


    Finally, our prefrontal cortex, which finishes developing after age 25, has a significant effect on our EI. Studies show that improved prefrontal cortex functioning is associated with higher EI levels. Individuals who are exposed to trauma or are diagnosed with PTSD, on the other hand, have a significantly less active prefrontal cortex. Cortisol that is released during trauma can also prevent the growth of nerve cells in this area, thus leading it not to develop freely.


    So what can we do to build Emotional intelligence after a traumatic experience?


    Traumatic experiences are mostly out of peoples’ hands. Many of us may have come from abusive backgrounds, which none of us signed up for. Many have witnessed natural disasters, accidents, early parental loss, parents’ substance abuse or mental illness, etc. None of this is anyone’s fault. So does this mean that because we have experienced trauma, we will always be less emotionally intelligent?


    The answer is NO.


    Trauma may affect our brains in a negative way, but trauma also leads to enormous growth, resilience, and empowerment, something called post-traumatic growth. As they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.


    Our past traumatic experiences can be opportunities for us to grow and improve on our emotional intelligence. In fact, we may be able to see the world from a uniquely beautiful perspective after healing from these experiences. After all, no one is born with a high EI. It is something we have to work out on, like a muscle.


    When we begin to process our traumas and start the healing process, we may find heightened levels of self-awareness, self-reflection, and emotion identification. 


    Through therapy, especially trauma focussed therapy, coaching, spirituality, mindfulness, meditation, volunteering, and many other self-help strategies, we can find our true purpose and emerge grounded, empathic, motivated, self-aware, and overall emotionally intelligent people.


    Photo: Meo(


    Felitti, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-248


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