Setbacks often arrive without warning. They knock on the door when we least expect them to turn our day and sometimes our world upside down. Unfortunately, in life, we can’t always anticipate problems, avoid conflicts, or work around difficulties; but we can create an emotional buffering zone that allows us to minimize the impact of those stressful situations.
What is an emotional buffer?
Decades ago, when the effects of stress began to be studied, psychologists appreciated that there is enormous variability in individual reactions to major negative life events, such as illness, loss of a significant person, or unemployment.
Some people are severely affected and end up developing depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, while others are less impacted and recover fairly quickly. The researchers found that one of the keys to better coping with life’s shocks is emotional buffering.
An emotional buffer is a psychological resource that reduces the impact of stressful and difficult situations in life, thus helping to protect our mental balance. Not only does it help us mitigate the negative effects of stressful or traumatic events, but it also helps us recover faster from the blow.
Emotional buffering protect us from stress
When we are faced with a stressful or distressing situation, our brain activates a “fight or flight” response, which is deactivated when the threatening factor ceases. The intensity with which that response is activated is called “stress reactivity” and is an important indicator of our physiological and psychological functioning, as well as our later recovery capacity.
Of course, a certain level of reactivity is essential to be able to respond to threats in the environment. A completely attenuated reactivity would put us in danger preventing us from reacting adaptively to threats. However, hyperreactivity to acute stress is usually detrimental in most cases since it not only affects our emotional well-being, but also makes us make worse decisions and decreases our performance.
In fact, a study conducted at University College London found that dysregulated responses to everyday stressors can accumulate and cause “wear and tear” on the body that often ends up manifesting through psychosomatic pathologies. Therefore, reduced reactivity and faster recovery are the most “adaptive” pattern of response to a stressful situation.
Emotional buffering serve precisely to reduce the impact of stressful situations, avoiding hitting bottom emotionally and helping us to recover faster. Emotional Intelligence, for example, is essential for building that emotional buffering zone.
An experiment conducted at the University of Worcester revealed that more emotionally intelligent people had less emotional reactivity to stress, their mood deteriorated less while facing stressful situations, they experienced less physical discomfort and pain, they preserved their cognitive abilities better and recovered faster after the stressful event.
Another investigation carried out at the Universitat Jaume I found that more emotionally intelligent people coped better with the psychological effects of the pandemic and recovered more quickly.
However, Emotional Intelligence is only one of the emotional buffers. Actually, the psychological buffering zone is a broader concept because it encompasses all the psychological resources we have to build a space of inner balance promoted and guided by self-awareness.
How to create an emotional buffering zone?
Imagine for a second that you are like a glass. The water, on the other hand, is your emotional states, such as stress, tensions, latent conflicts, frustration or anger. If the glass is empty, you can contain some stress or frustration. However, if it is already full, any stressful situation, no matter how small, will become the straw that makes it overflow.
Tension, discomfort, anguish or frustration are emotions that accumulate over time and absorb our energy. If we don’t get rid of them, if we don’t make sure to empty our “emotional glass”, it is not strange that the slightest setback ends up making us explode or that a problem seems like a dead end in which we get lost.
To build an effective psychological buffering zone, we need to make sure we clean out the “emotional junk” from time to time. It is about restoring our emotional balance and replenishing mental energy letting go of all those emotions that hurt and keep us in a state of permanent anxiety, as well as the negative thought patterns that distress us.
A small exercise to prevent negative emotions from building up is called “Catch, Map and Release”. For example, when you are immersed in a stressful situation, such as a very tight deadline, waiting for the result of a medical test or an interpersonal conflict, you should only stop for a second to:
1. Catch it. Pay attention to your emotions and feelings. In what part of the body are they projecting? How are you experiencing them?
2. Map it. Identify the thought that goes through your mind and is causing or fueling that emotion that makes you feel bad.
3. Let go. Test that thought. It’s real? Recognize that what you feel is likely to come from your interpretation, not from reality.
Generally, everyone should find those activities that allow them to relax and find their balance point. For some it may be meditation or mindfulness, for others the practice of physical activity or relaxing daily routines that allow them to get rid of the negativity of the day. Ensuring you get better sleep to allow your brain to rest and unwind, as well as spending more time in nature, are activities that help develop your emotional buffering zone.
Ask yourself what you can do every day to feel more relaxed, experience more pleasure in life and counteract those moments of tension throughout the day. It could be as simple as enjoying a leisurely breakfast every morning or a hot bath every night. If you find something energizing or relaxing that you can do every day or every week, you will be able to recharge your psychological battery and develop a good emotional cushion to help you deal with the most difficult moments.
Sadovyy, M. et. Al. (2021) COVID-19: How the stress generated by the pandemic may affect work performance through the moderating role of emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences; 180: 110986.
Lea, R. G. et. Al. (2019) Does Emotional Intelligence Buffer the Effects of Acute Stress? A Systematic Review. Front. Psychol; 10.3389.
Chida, Y. & Hamer, M. (2008) Chronic psychosocial factors and acute physiological responses to laboratory-induced stress in healthy populations: a quantitative review of 30 years of investigations. Psychol. Bull. 134, 829–885.