The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Mental Health

Learn how to develop emotional intelligence and continue to improve it.

health professionals conversing at TTUHSC

Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - this is not easy.
—Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time set aside to fight the stigma, provide support, and educate the public on ways to support those struggling with mental illness. A key piece to the mental health puzzle is how we experience and process our own emotions and those around us.

At first glance, the term “emotional intelligence” may seem like a contradiction. As a culture, we have been taught to separate our emotions from our intellect, especially in the workplace. However, research shows that emotions play an important role in our lives, across a variety of fields.

We spoke with Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S, about the role that emotional intelligence plays in how we relate to others, the consequences of ignoring our emotions, and how to nurture a higher degree of empathy and emotional understanding. Winkelman is the Director of the TTUHSC Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program in the School of Health Professions.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S

Logan Winkelman, PhD, LPC-S

“If you search Google today, there are millions of hits for the definition of emotional intelligence,” Winkelman says. “If you look at the literature and go back to the founders on this topic, it’s a form of social intelligence that is your ability to monitor your own and other peoples’ feelings and emotions.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines emotional intelligence as the “ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”

While the term appeared sporadically in psychological literature of the 1970s and 80s, the concept of emotional intelligence was formally defined in 1990 by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. They outlined four groups of skills:

  • The ability to perceive, appraise and accurately express emotions
  • The ability to access and evoke emotions when they facilitate cognition
  • The ability to comprehend emotional messages and make use of emotional information
  • The ability to regulate one’s own emotions to promote growth and well-being

A common misconception of emotional intelligence is that it correlates with one’s IQ, as if it’s something you are born with.

“Emotional intelligence is not considered to be a part of one’s fixed personality, such as being naturally introverted or extroverted,” Winkelman explains. “It exists in the fluid part of the brain that has plasticity and ability to change.”

Learning and developing these different emotional traits is possible but challenging. Winkelman compares it to writing with your non-dominant hand, it takes effort and practice.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence

So if emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned, it is something that must be taught.

“The vast majority of people have not been taught these skills, so the likelihood of them being passed down is low,” she says. “But there is hope.”

As the importance of teaching emotional intelligence to children continues to rise, Winkelman believes we will see younger generations benefit from this learning.

“When research is cyclical, it takes a little while to catch on. Now that it is in our education system, we will see the benefits of learning these skills,” she says.  

Winkelman believes that teaching emotional regulation in early childhood education is critical. As a child, she was identified as a child with ADD when, in reality, she was suffering from dyslexia.

“I was distracted. I didn’t have the ability to understand that I needed to take it slower,” she says. Simply learning to understand your feelings and knowing when you are overwhelmed is the first step toward managing those emotions. “It’s as simple as being able to say to yourself, ‘I’m emotional right now, let me breathe.’”

When we haven’t been taught how to process our emotions firsthand, we learn by what we see in those around us.

“If you’re in an environment with rage, you will learn that,” Winkelman says. “Social emotional learning is learning the ability to regulate your emotions with skill rather than pure observation.”

The teaching of emotional intelligence is not isolated to the classroom. Companies across the country are seeing the value of these skills on their productivity and morale.

Furthermore, Winkelman explains that TTUHSC has an initiative to integrate emotional intelligence for healthcare workers.

“Research shows that emotionally intelligent healthcare providers provide better care and experience less burnout,” she said.  

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence

Winkelman is excited to see that many social inequities, long taken as fact, are being challenged as we learn more about how our emotions work and how vital empathy is.

“Emotional intelligence and empathy are superpowers,” she exclaims.

There are ample resources online for cultivating higher emotional intelligence, and Winkelman recommends dipping your toe into the water and treating yourself gently.

“Emotional intelligence is a continuum,” she says. “Don’t expect yourself to feel like you get it all. Our emotions are more complex than that.”

One comprehensive resource is the Emotional Consortium Website. It’s a great place to start with research and strategies. “It can be daunting at first,” she says. “A lot of time we have the tendency to compare ourselves to others.”

The good news is that gaining more emotional intelligence is something you can begin learning from any walk of life.

“I’m willing to bet you will reap the benefits,” Winkelman says. “We can become a more gentle society with more vulnerable human beings.”

That is a skill worth learning.

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