Building emotional intelligence builds up health

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Your thoughts can make you sick.

It's true. On the other hand, you can stay healthy and happy by choosing better-feeling thoughts.

This is not a theory of mine. It's a fact supported by scientific research. In his book, "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ," Dr. Daniel Goleman writes on the nature and importance of other kinds of intelligence - what he calls our emotional quotient, or E.Q. - and shares some cutting-edge findings in biology and brain science.

You've probably, at some time, allowed yourself to start worrying about something and - while fostering a fearful mental atmosphere - actually found yourself becoming physically ill. That's because these negative thoughts are perceived by the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, as a real threat. The amygdala responds by triggering a rush of hormones, especially cortisol, to deal with a threatening situation. This is also called a stress response and stress is the No. 1 factor that causes us to grow old and deteriorate.

The amygdala developed early in our evolution as a survival mechanism because if we weren't constantly alert to danger, we might end up in the belly of a mountain lion or other wild animal. Or the guy with the club in the next cave might be after our food.

Although the amygdala's hormones helped us survive with a flight or fight response, today these hormonal responses can damage our health. The "threat" created by our thoughts and feelings isn't typically an immediate threat to our lives, as was the case with our caveman ancestors. It's not something we can deal with by running away or fighting the danger, the type of physical action that would use up the cortisol. Without taking action by fleeing or fighting, cortisol and other stress-triggered hormones stay in our system and can increase blood sugar, suppress our immune system and decrease bone formation.

And here's the kicker: You can stimulate this emotional response with your thoughts. When you focus on something, you create emotions. If you find yourself thinking of something you dread or fear, your emotional response will trigger the amygdala just as if the thing you dread or fear were really happening. And if we're constantly worrying, we are continuously introducing more and more cortisol into our system - in effect, our thoughts are stimulating a system that was meant to protect us, but in a way that actually harms us.

Can you recall a time when you heard a sound that frightened you? Maybe you were alone and a sound made you think someone was in the house with you. A few minutes later, with the lights on and an inspection of your surroundings, you discover there's no one there and no threat. There really never was a threat, but your heart is racing and you may feel breathless. All of those physical responses were caused by what you thought.

The key is what Goleman terms emotional intelligence - the ability to be aware of your emotional responses and check those knee-jerk survival instincts before they trigger the physiological reactions.

And the really great news is that neuroscience studies show the circuitry that manages these emotional intelligence abilities is malleable throughout our lifetime. This malleable quality (neuroplasticity) means we can develop greater emotional intelligence - conscious response - at any age. We can build our emotional intelligence so that we can support our mental and physical well-being - and the well-being of those around us.

Wood, of Questa, is an inspirational speaker and award-winning author of "Think and Grow Young: Powerful Steps to Create a Life of Joy." Her forthcoming book is "Joy! Joy! Joy! 7 Mind Body Spirit Habits That Transformed My Life." Wood's website is ellenwoodspeaks.com. Contact her at ellen@ellenwoodspeaks.com.

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