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How the Emotional Landscape Has Changed Amidst Coronavirus, According to an Expert

The founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Marc Brackett, has been studying human emotions for decades. But he’s never seen anything like this.

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused a great deal of stress for individuals, but according to Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, it’s actually changing the emotional landscape of our society right now.

“There is a major shift—95 percent of the emotions that people are coming up with, talking about, are anxiety, stress and fear. Only 5 percent of the emotions that people share with us that they’re experiencing each day are positive emotions, and they’re not joy or happiness. They’re more like hope and optimism,” Brackett (pictured below) said of the findings from a recent survey he conducted of 5,000 people across the country.

“We are, right now, living in a nation, pretty much a world, where people are highly activated, feeling anxious, feeling like they have no ability to predict what’s going to happen,” he recently told Worth. “They can’t control what’s going to happen and that it might last forever. And it’s really putting our nation in a terrible place regarding their mental health.”

Perhaps most alarming about Brackett’s findings, though, is that this level of widespread negative emotions is unprecedented when compared to other studies he’s conducted.

“I’ve done big studies on this before, and it’s never been these kinds of feelings,” he explained. “Never have I done a project where—across 5,000 people [from] across the United States, and even other countries—95 percent of the words people came up with were overwhelmed, anxious.”

It’s clear from this study that many people are experiencing difficult emotions related to the virus and its rapid spread, but as the curve flattens and rates begin to drop, focus is now shifting to how COVID-19 will change the way we live and interact moving forward. Brackett feels that there will be larger ramifications from this.

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“I think it’s going to change dating and intimacy, for a couple of years. And I think we just have to acknowledge that. And hopefully people will adapt to it, but it’s still yet an unknown,” he said. “I think it’s going to create anxiety around how to manage social situations.”

That’s not to say that our biology will change. Brackett asserts that we will still want to be close to people, but the way we do that might shift—at least for the immediate future.

“I think the desire for intimacy is going to be greater and the desire to be out, but the rules of engagement are going to be different,” he added.

Brackett previously spoke to Worth late last year about the importance of emotional intelligence, but times have changed since then. And, interestingly, emotional intelligence is now more important than it has ever been.

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“When you’re at ease and you’re calm and everything, your finances are OK, your relationships are going well, job is fine, there’s no threat. Your emotional intelligence is less needed,” Brackett said. “But when you are triggered and activated, under pressure, there’s uncertainty, that’s when you really have to use these skills wisely. Or you’ll just blow up or fall apart basically.”

Luckily, there are a few ways we can grow our own emotional intelligence and make ourselves feel better right now.

1. Read

For those looking to understand emotional intelligence, Brackett’s book is a good place to start.

“My book is an overview guide for just the principles of emotional intelligence and the skills,” Brackett explained. “I learned from running around the world for the last 25 years that people have not had an adequate emotion education. So, I just think reading books like mine and others can be very helpful because you can build the vocabulary to describe your feelings. You can start asking yourself questions about why you’re having those feelings and then, importantly, you can learn strategies to regulate those feelings.”

2. Breathe

 One of the things Brackett learned from his recent survey is that people need calming strategies right now. He recommends learning some basic breathing exercises.

“What that does is it allows your parasympathetic nervous system to come into action, which lowers the heart rate and allows your thinking part of the brain to function properly,” said Brackett. “And so, if you don’t know that, then what happens is that you’re activating, you start yelling, you start screaming, you start saying, ‘why are you doing that?’ And when you do know that, you know you need to take that pause. You know you need to give yourself the proper space in order to collect yourself, so that you can actually have a productive conversation. How many of us, when we’re activated, would just go right for the jugular and say things that we regret as opposed to giving ourselves the space?”

3. Practice Mindfulness

Many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can be very beneficial. Some of these benefits include better regulation of emotions, better focus and stress reduction.

“There are so many free apps or cheap apps available. For example, Headspace is a very popular one that people use to help with some of their feelings or to manage stress and anxiety,” he concluded. “My favorite mindfulness teacher is named Thich Nhat Hanh. Just engaging in these basic mindfulness techniques can be really helpful.”

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