When clients have concerns about stress and anxiety in their work lives, we often take a step back and think about mother nature and the evolution of human beings. This type of perspective is helpful because stress and anxiety can feel like deeply personal failings, when in fact they are natural, inevitable products of living in our modern society.

Let’s step back for a moment. Thousands of years ago, humans had to devote all of their attention to the primal act of survival. Our primary concerns were food, water, warmth, shelter, and safety. There was no time for dreaming about the future, going on vacation, or watching entertainment. In elevating ourselves out of this reality into our modern, man-made world, we’ve given ourselves a better chance at health, a long life and the ability to pursue interests, activities, business ventures, and leisure that a caveman could not comprehend. 

It’s great in theory. In practice, given the way our brains work with our oversized frontal cortexes, a lot of the comfort and space that we’ve created for ourselves manifests in stress, anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, and feelings of aimlessness and lack of purpose. We’ve got too much ability to think. Too much distance between us and the rudimentary act of living.

Think about tigers. Behold one in nature and they are spectacular, stealthy, playful, fierce. But put a tiger in a manmade environment, where its survival is ensured — water, meat, a mate, medicine — and suddenly it becomes stressed in a way that does not happen in nature. It paces. It sulks. It tries to escape. I’ve seen the same thing with countless other animals in captivity. Rhinos shove their horns at tree stumps, over and over, trying to pound a way out of their man-made environment.

It would be easy to force the analogy that we are those rhinos. We are those tigers. The truth is we’re not. The tiger and the rhino have no power to change their situations. It’s different for humans. We do have the power even if sometimes we fail to see it. 

Leadership coaching helps to show people they have the ability to change their situations. They can unlock new opportunities, unleash higher levels of leadership, and create sustainable ecosystems that allow them to flourish in their personal and professional lives. But it takes work, and a lot of that work comes down to learning and strengthening our emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage our own emotions and that of others — for our own wellbeing and that of a larger team, family, or community. Some experts like to say there is no such thing as a negative emotion. There are just emotions, which on a biological level exist so that we can recognize threats in our environment and be prepared and motivated to manage them. 

Emotions, in other words, are sources of information. Anger, stress, fear, frustration, jealousy, boredom. A tiger in captivity does not have the emotionally intellectual capacity to step back and look at its feelings, born of captivity, and find creative solutions for them. We do, so long as we acknowledge our emotions and hone our ability to listen and understand them. With our emotional intelligence we empower ourselves to become better leaders and happier, more satisfied human beings.