Does Emotional Intelligence Buffer the Effects of Acute Stress? A Systematic Review: EI and acute stress

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People with higher levels of emotional intelligence (EI: adaptive emotional traits, skills, and abilities) typically achieve more positive life outcomes, such as psychological wellbeing, educational attainment, and job-related success. Although the underpinning mechanisms linking EI with those outcomes are largely unknown, it has been suggested that EI may work as a “stress buffer.” Theoretically, when faced with a stressful situation, emotionally intelligent individuals should show a more adaptive response than those with low EI, such as reduced reactivity (less mood deterioration, less physiological arousal), and faster recovery once the threat has passed. A growing number of studies have begun to investigate that hypothesis in respect to EI measured as both an ability (AEI) and trait (TEI), but results are unclear. To test the “stress-buffering” function of EI, we systematically reviewed experimental studies that explored the relationship between both types of EI and acute stress reactivity or recovery. By searching four databases, we identified 45 eligible studies. Results indicated that EI was only adaptive in certain contexts, and that findings differed according to stressor type, and how EI was measured. In terms of stress reactivity, TEI related to less mood deterioration during sports-based stressors (e.g., competitions), physical discomfort (e.g., dental procedure), and cognitive stressors (e.g., memory tasks), but did not appear as helpful in other contexts (e.g., public speaking). Furthermore, effects of TEI on physiological stress responses, such as heart rate, were inconsistent. Effects of AEI on subjective and objective stress reactivity were often non-significant, with high levels detrimental in some cases. However, data suggest that both higher AEI and TEI relate to faster recovery from acute stress. In conclusion, results provide mixed support for the stress-buffering effect of EI. Limitations and quality of studies are also discussed. Findings could have implications for EI training programmes.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Article number810
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 17 Apr 2019