Five Elements of Emotional Resilience (and How to Cultivate Them)

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there are things we cannot control. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned this year is how to be okay with uncertainty — not something I have traditionally placed as one of my top life skills. I like to plan, control, and organise everything, and it sure is hard to do that when life hands you an ‘unprecedented’ global pandemic.

In acknowledging that life is sometimes a big ol’ shitstorm, it’s a good time to adjust our sails to prepare for whatever crazy poop-winds might be in our future. Whether we thrive or barely survive in a period of adversity depends on many things. Some — such as genetic inheritance and childhood experiences — are outside of our control, but others are learnable skills. Let’s focus on what we can change, shall we?

The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin ‘resiliens’, which means to bounce back or rebound. It doesn’t mean you sail through life with a smile on your face, accepting everything, feeling nothing, spouting positive platitudes, and avoiding all suffering. It means that you bounce back from adversity and deal with it effectively, growing and building strength from your experiences where possible. Regardless of your starting point, we can all build more of it. Here are five aspects you can cultivate at home.

1. Emotional Awareness and Regulation

Are your feelings your friends or enemies? Helpful servants or cruel masters?

Emotions are messengers that  prepare you for action. There are no ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ feelings, although they may be inappropriately directed (such as  phobias) or out of proportion (as seen in  depression and  anxiety). Fear, anger and worry all have clear protective benefits, preparing us to respond to a situation. When you can recognise and name your feelings without judgment and get curious about them, you reclaim your power.

Good emotional regulation has clear mental health and life benefits. Not to be confused with denial or avoidance, it allows us to make space between the feeling and impulsive reaction to consider our response. The trick is to create that space to choose, or as a teacher of mine once said, “smell the soup and not put your whole head in it.”

Learning to stop, acknowledge, and be curious about your feelings can be enough to give you that space. Practices like mindfulness, meditation, or yogaincrease your ability to self-regulate. I use a visualisation of driving a car with all my feelings in the back seat. Sometimes Anger shouts: “Hey! That guy is being a douche! Let’s do something about it!” I thank anger for that information and then use my wisdom to decide which direction to take. I don’t let anger jump into the front seat. He’s a terrible driver.

2. Active Coping Skills

Active coping is taking responsibility for your situation and using your internal resources to create solutions. It includes problem-solving, information-seeking, requesting support, changing your environment, and reframing. Someone with good active coping skills focuses less on changing the unpleasant feeling, which is a bit like covering the Check Engine light with gaffer tape, and more on popping the hood to see why the light is on. A problem-focus rather than emotion-focus strategy is likely to lead to better outcomes.

Active coping skills can be learned, and like any skill or muscle, you can train yourself up on smaller stressors so you can be ready for the big ones and the approach becomes second nature.

Ask yourself:
What is the outcome I would like from this situation?
Am I taking the best steps to achieve it?
What can I do to improve this situation, if anything?
What other information would help me?
Who can I ask for support or guidance?
Can I simply remove myself from this situation?
Is there a way I can look at this that is less stressful?

3. Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking allows us to see things from multiple perspectives, adjust to change, and see potential positive and negative outcomes of any situation. If I hold a rigid belief that I require a promotion to be happy, not getting it is likely to devastate me. Flexible thinking allows me to consider other paths to happiness, such as changing companies or focusing on developing new skills, and to see that my value and happiness are not determined by this job alone. People may even transform major life adversity into new life purpose and direction, like those who become spokespeople for conditions that affect them or their loved ones. A big part of cognitive flexibility includes acceptance of the things you can’t change (like the past) and working with them rather than against them.

Think about stressful life events you have endured in the past, particularly those which felt unsurmountable at the time. Now reflect on three positives that came from each. You may even find that in hindsight, you have gratitude for elements of it. Recognise that whatever you are going through right now, there’s a good chance you’ll see positives in it in the future.

4. Physical Wellbeing

It is no secret that good physical well-being improves your mental well-being. Your mind, body, and emotions are intertwined in complex ways and need to be cared for as one holistic system. Nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and alcohol consumption all have clear links to resilience and good mental health.

Certain nutrients are required for your brain’s mood functions to work, and if your diet is largely processed low-nutrient food it can affect your mood and your resilience. Mental illness can be caused or exacerbated by nutritional deficiencies and treated with dietary changes or supplements. Consider getting your levels of the essential nutrients checked with your GP.

Ask yourself honestly how your diet, activity level, alcohol intake, and sleep are serving you, and give them each a score out of 10 if you like. Identify areas for improvement, and find enjoyable ways to up those scores. Fun and pleasure are key: if you’re forcing yourself to eat kale when you hate it or jogging when the weather is cold and wet, you’re not likely to keep it up. May I suggest dancing and roast veggies instead?

5. Social support

Many studies have been done on the benefits of social support. It has been shown to ease or prevent PTSD, depression, suicide, anxiety, and even dementia. Simply having a lot of people around you is not enough though — the support must be positive, and interactions like criticising, blaming, minimising, and undermining can be more harmful than no social interactions at all!

We need to actively nurture friendships with people who encourage us, support us, and make us feel good about ourselves. If you are currently in a lockdown situation this can be more challenging, but do what you can with what you have available: video, phone calls, messages, and socially distanced picnics are all helpful.

Make a list of people who support you, inspire you, or provide positive social support. Keep that list handy for times when you need a boost — sometimes when we’re feeling fragile, it can be hard to remember who our supports are. Can you do something supportive for any of those people today? A kind message, a small gift, or an expression of gratitude? An act of kindness gives both you and the receiver free happy brain chemicals!

That’s it folks. Hoist up your sails, fortify your vessel and get yourself in the best condition possible. Because 2020 ain’t over yet, and I want us all to get through it in one resilient piece!

Addicted to Change? Neophiles Represent!

Self Perception Theory & How to Hack it for Happiness

You judge plenty of books by their covers, all the time. It’s an adaptive behaviour that couldn’t and shouldn’t be circumvented. Whenever a situation gets your attention, your mind rushes to access any information you have associated with the apparent cues of the situation, so you know how to feel and what to do about it.

· On a dark lonely street, you see a young man in a black hoodie with face tattoos and a slouch, watching you — probably a criminal, wants to rob me, cross the street to avoid him.
· The light turns green and the driver behind you immediately leans on the horn — they must be a rude and impatient asshole, grow up dickhead.
· A woman screams at her tantrum-throwing toddler in the supermarket and smacks him in the face — Obviously angry, probably tired, possibly a terrible mother who should never have had children.

Your attributions will vary based on your outlook, experience and upbringing, but one thing I promise is that you make them.
I was house-sitting in Perth and in the second year of my psychology degree when I woke up one morning and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. I was sick of feeling so down. I wasn’t coping and my mental and emotional health was dismal. God I was such a mess right now I couldn’t even clean up after myself and the sink was full of dirty dishes. Tears gathered in my eyes as dark clouds of hopelessness rolled on in to wreck my day. If I could only… If I wasn’t such a….



Was any of this really true??

Because I had only read about Self-Perception Theory a few days earlier as part of my psychology curriculum, I was able to catch myself creating this story before it got legs. What the hell… my mental health was fine! I had seen the dishes in the sink and since letting the house get messy is one symptom of failing mental health for me, I had unconsciously come to the conclusion that I therefore had failing mental health, and my mind had run with it, winding up a miserable story that invoked tears and sadness that actually wasn’t even true. The story fed into my hopelessness which fed back into my story and so the downward spiral of shittiness descended. And I started to wonder how often I did this. Particularly when I was most vulnerable, before my morning cup of caffeine and positivity had had a chance to circulate my bloodstream.

Self-Perception theory states that “Individuals come to ‘know’ their own attitudes, emotions and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behaviour… Thus, to the extend that internal cues are weak, ambiguous or uninterpretable, the individual is functionally in the same position as an outside observer… who must necessarily rely upon those same external cues to infer the individual’s inner states.” (Bem, 1972).

Basically, in the absence of obvious reasons for it, you judge your internal state by your behaviour in the same way you judge others.

Got a bad grade on my exam — I must be stupid or I don’t care about this subject.

Haven’t been to the gym in months — I must hate exercise and I’m lazy and undisciplined.

Messy sink full of dishes — My mental health must be taking a slide.
It’s fairly easy to see how these attributions become self-perpetuating cycles.

I didn’t go to the gym last week → I must be lazy → I am lazy, so I act lazy → I don’t go to the gym this week → I must be lazy.

Much of what happens internally, we are blissfully unaware of. Psychology has shown us that even when we THINK we’re aware of the reasons we do, say or feel things, we’re probably not — at least not all of it. It is much easier to change our external environment and behaviour than it is our thoughts and feelings because they are visible, measurable and observable to us.

When I know my mental health is iffy or potentially a bit fragile, I take extra care to do the kinds of things I do when my mental health is great. I exercise outdoors, I clean my bedroom, I say nice things to people and offer help freely. I go to the local café for my morning coffee and smile at people, and I make a point of getting things done, even if they are small, manageable things.

Here are your two steps to hacking self-perception for happiness.

STEP ONE: Make a list of the kinds of things you do when you’re feeling GOOD and when you’re feeling BAD. Do as many things from the GOOD list as you can each day, even if only a few of them feel manageable. Things that are immediately visible are particularly helpful, such as cleaning the kitchen or making your bed. Activities like going for a walk outside, eating the healthy foods or dancing have a double benefit — exercise, nutritious food and fresh air will give you a boost on TOP of your self-perception. Do them even if you don’t feel like it. ESPECIALLY if you don’t feel like it.

STEP TWO: Don’t reward yourself for doing these things. The presence of an extrinsic reward can lead you to conclude that you undertook the activities for the sole purpose of receiving the reward, the attribution to ‘feeling good’ becomes redundant and the effect is lost. You have to keep your reasons ambiguous to make space for the happiness attribution. If you want to use rewards, make them goal-based rather than task-based. For example, reward yourself for clocking up 100km on the treadmill this week rather than for showing up to the gym.

And that’s it! Go forth and hack your attributions my friends — your mental and emotional wellness is worth working for.


“Hello, I’ve come to take my clothes off.”

The announcement was offered with self-assurance and my widest ‘no big deal’ smile, but scrutiny would have revealed the tremble in my fingers as I released each button and allowed my clothes to drop to the ground.

“Who are you?” We ask each other in self-development workshops, gazing into each other’s eyes with what we hope is unconditional acceptance and gentle curiosity. Well, I’m Larissa. I’m single and childless, mostly by choice. I’m a vegetarian, I’m a hypnotherapist, an internal seeker who values self-awareness and self-inquiry. I’m a psychology student, a traveller, and a singer. These are the answers I’ll offer in response to this inquiry, but this workshop-appropriate list lacks an important classification, perhaps the most important one. It whispers to me from shadows of shame.

I’m Larissa, and I’m fat.

As a size 16 woman weighing in at around 90kg, I’m labelled ‘obese’ on the BMI, my defining number languishing chubbily on the red end of the Heart Foundation scale, reminding me I’m in danger of keeling over from a fat red heart attack at any moment. The underweight end is blue, by the way, which hardly offers the same sense of health-shaming alarm, even though the risks are of similar magnitude. My ‘obesity’ is not unusual, it doesn’t render me disabled, I don’t have diabetes or heart problems, and you probably know people fatter than me. But this story isn’t about superlatives and bizarre events. It’s about the very common experience of being a fat person in a fat-shaming society, and how the tendency to store calories like an efficient famine-ready camel can completely shape your life.

Do you cringe or feel uncomfortable every time I use the word ‘fat’? Good, me too. That’s why it’s important. Let’s work through this together.

Born 6 weeks premature and heavier than the average full-term baby in Whyalla hospital, I started this life big. I was 8 or 9 when I was referred to a childhood obesity specialist and sent for tests that involved gagging down a salty orange drink they told me would taste like flat Fanta (lies) and being jabbed with needles that made me cry. The wiggly line on my chart indicated thyroid dysfunction, and marked the beginning of a youth full of doctor’s visits and medication.

At the age of 9 I learned to diet. I learned that food was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and mostly the enemy, that my body was wrong, and to feel shame if I ate food that made it more wrong. I saw dieticians who made me keep food diaries, and berated me if I ate cake at a party. I remained chubby, but medication and diets kept me out of the ‘obese’ neighbourhood, and experimenting with eating restrictions to manage my weight became a major part of Who I Am.

“Love yourself!” The holistic practitioners sing to us now, “Love yourself no matter what size you are!” and they Insta-pose with hearts and flowers in their thin bodies that have always been thin, pleased with themselves for having distributed the new gospel and therefore solved the problem and fulfilled their purpose.

Self-love is great in theory, but allow me to present you with the front page of Realistic News, smacking it loudly with the back of my hand. How do you love yourself when you’ve been given the opposite message from every angle for 40 years? Every billboard, every movie, every TV program, advertisement and magazine shouts ‘Beauty is thin!!’, Disney princesses are thin, the fatties are all villains or comedic characters. These are the subconscious programs we receive when our brains are still forming, they mould our neural pathways and create our hard-wired beliefs when we’re too young to question them. Thin = good, Fat = bad.

A large woman on social media commits a daring rebellion, posting a picture in a bathing suit with a real message of messy, difficult self-love. Inevitably the comments are littered with disgusted reminders that promoting obesity is bad, deeply held fatphobia and thin supremacy disguised as concern for her welfare and the welfare of others. Cover yourself up, your body is a harmful message. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Think of the children. Go for a walk.

But you know, love yourself.

I can’t remember when the teasing began, but by the ninth grade I hated school. I started skipping classes, and by my final year I barely turned up at all. I had no problems with the work. I had problems with not being able to get through a single day without a fat joke, comment on what I was eating, or contemptuous giggles. Best years of your life, my arse. I didn’t learn strength in the face of adversary, or how to rise above mockery. What I learned was the art of avoidance and walking away, which combined with the freedom of adulthood I have refined into a superpower, departing painful situations in a single bound, with a smile and a wink and a hefty dose of non-attachment.

I’ve tried all the diets. The thing about diets though, is that they are more highly correlated with weight gain than weight loss. In fact, weight gain is the most likely outcome of a diet. When you intentionally drop kilos, your hormones and metabolism adapt in such a way as to practically guarantee that weight will return. On top of that, it now appears that health risks such as heart disease and diabetes may be caused by weight cycling rather than obesity itself, a result of constantly losing weight and gaining it back in attempts to comply with society’s insistence that we must be thinner.

I gave up alcohol this year. Feeling inspired and motivated, I started implementing food changes in my life, and by that I mean I went on another diet. I gave up wheat, sugar, vegetable oils, trans fats, all grains, starchy vegetables, and all dairy except for grass-fed butter, which is a ‘good fat’. I ate mostly veggies to keep my fibre intake up but I didn’t lose weight, so I started intermittent fasting 3 times a week and exercising daily. Two months later I still hadn’t lost any weight. Upon stepping off the scales that day, I cried and ate half a litre of ice cream, and gained half a kilo.

Eat less fat, eat less sugar, eat more protein and fat and avoid carbs, fruit is good, fruit is bad, meat is good and also bad, go on a juice fast, try intermittent calorie restriction and don’t starve yourself, eat a big breakfast, don’t eat until midday. Being overweight is bad, losing weight and putting it back on is worse. This is diet culture. Work your butt off, all the time, following some arbitrary rules for minimal rewards and then despair in the experience of your body fighting you to keep or return to its heavier weight. Rinse and repeat.
This week I started a new diet called a ‘thyroid protocol’. Yes I do know the definition of insanity, but what else is there to do?

Around the end of high school, new government guidelines meant I lost my thyroid medication and in the space of a year, my weight skyrocketed to more than 100kg. I was wearing a dress size 20 at age 20. The world is not kind to those of a dress size 20, in my experience. I could not get a job, people regarded me with irritation and scorn, and I learned to shrink myself energetically in attempts to be inoffensive.

If you’re reading this and thinking “She must have been eating a lot of cheeseburgers though,” you’re both wrong, and just like everyone else. It’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that we attribute other people’s perceived failures to enduring negative personality traits, even in the face of disconfirming evidence, because it gives us a sense of control and boosts our own self-esteem. This is why it feels acceptable to judge fat people. People blame us, our personal failure, a lack of willpower and excess of overindulgence that they personally would never fall prey to.

Harvard conducted a study on ex-contestants of The Biggest Loser who had regained weight, and found that their metabolisms had undergone ‘adaptation’. Their bodies now refused to burn calories in the same way as other people, making weight gain inevitable. When the results were published, thin people squinted at them, skimmed over the bits that challenged their beliefs and typed “They must have returned to their old habits” into the comments before continuing with their self-satisfied thin lives.

I have not experienced self-love as a destination, but as ongoing choices. The first time I got naked for public scrutiny, I stood terrified in the spotlight of their gazes, half-waiting for their expressions of disgust, knowing glances and smirks as they considered the ‘wrongness’ of my body. “What beautiful curves,” they muttered as their pencils scribbled over paper and I stood as still as possible, breeze caressing my skin and courage in my silent affirmations. I still have many of those drawings, gifts from the artists, tucked away as a physical reminder of my beauty and bravery.

I life model professionally now, and every pose I offer is a statement of my rebellion. This is me. I am art. I am beautiful, and I refuse to be ashamed. The loveliest renditions I’ve seen are not the ones that slim me down and gloss over my imperfections, but the ones that capture my bulges and cellulite whilst revealing the radiance of a bold, imperfect woman whose worth comes from somewhere much deeper than her physical contours. This is my rebellious self-love, and no matter how hard that choice feels sometimes, I keep making it. Because THIS… is Who I Really Am.

Care to join me?

The Discomfort of Being Yourself

“Wow, I can’t believe we haven’t spoken since high school! What have you been up to?”

“I’ve been travelling! I’ve been to more than 30 countries, just got back from 7 years in Latin America. I’ve been working freelance online and singing jazz, and now I’m starting my path in holistic therapy, which makes my heart sing! My life has been full of adventure and learning, I’ve overcome some serious mental health stuff, given up drinking and smoking, and I’m pumped for a new direction in healing!”

“Oh. But tell me… you haven’t found The One yet?”

From a popular perspective, I’ve failed at life in many ways.

I grew up in a standard nuclear family in the ‘burbs of Adelaide where I felt we were offered a template for life, without much discussion of alternatives. Finish school, go to university, get a good job. Get a promotion, work harder, get married, buy a house, have a couple of kids. Get a bigger house and a bigger TV to put in it, go to Bali or Thailand once a year on your annual leave. Create financial security and save for your retirement, when all this work will be worth it. Drink wine every night to relax, and feel reassured that you must be doing it right, because everyone else is doing something similar.

It’s a valid life choice and I support it, but it’s just that. A choice. Instead of choosing that, I left Adelaide for London and spent 13 years travelling overseas which ended in 5 years in Brazil, where I sang jazz in bars and weddings and taught English online. I drank a bunch of mind-altering plant medicine in the jungle, studied transpersonal counselling and started my practice as a hypnotherapist, travelled some more, became a nude model, got my tubes tied and discovered I’m happiest single.

I’ve adopted and thrown off a number of spiritual practices and paths, changing them regularly like the proverbial mystical underpants and now going divinely commando. It’s not that I enjoy the cool breeze on my most vulnerable parts, it’s that all those underpants were designed by and for other people and after a brief time of wearing each, none of them fit quite right. Nothing seems to fit quite right.

Now I’m a 42-year-old pink-haired undergrad psychology student who lives in a van and travels full time. I don’t like stability, I don’t want security, and I never miss having a romantic partner. The longer I stay in one place, job or relationship, the more unhappy I become, and I am most content with an abundance of travel, my own company, sunrises and warm weather.

I am also plagued by insecurity and doubt. Beautiful landscapes, outrageous freedom and endless adventure keep it at bay for periods of time, but every now and then it shakes me awake at 2am whispering urgently… “What if you’re doing it wrong? What if you’re just failing at this lifegame? My god, what if we’re running out of time to fix it??” When I pause to compare myself to others on the issues that society deems important, these fears are highlighted. I don’t have a family, a good job, a ‘home base’, retirement savings, or possessions outside of what I’ve tetrissed into my little converted Hiace. Unlike my camping table and solar panels I don’t fit snugly anywhere, and this makes me, and other people, really uncomfortable. Social psychology has some answers to this, and if you’re nodding with enthusiastic understanding as you read this essay, you might be interested in the research.

According to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, we build our identity and ideas of ‘self’ based on the groups that we identify with. In line with this theory I might categorise myself as an Australian 40+ woman, a vanlifer, a psychology student, a hypnotherapist, polyamorous and politically left-leaning amongst other things. These social identities give us a framework on how to act and form attitudes, basic ‘norms’ that we tend to comply with as part of our groups, and group membership provides us with guidelines within which we can make decisions. Groups evaluate themselves positively against other groups, and when we sign up to them and adopt their norms, it gives us the opportunity to do the same for ourselves. In short, groups provide us with a sense of belonging, positive self-esteem, and certainty about ourselves and the world.

Except I’m an Australian who cringes at the flag as a sign of racism, refuses to celebrate Australia Day or eat kangaroo and spent much of my adulthood overseas. As a van traveller, 99% of the people I meet are either grey nomads or young European vanpackers, and in more than a year on the road, I’ve never met another 40-something solo van traveller, or another travelling student. I’m a psychology student who does not like classrooms and is twice the age of my classmates, I categorise myself as polyamorous but seldom seek relationships and identify as demisexual. Hypnotherapists make fun of psychologists, who they deem ineffectual, my psychology degree is full of digs at the failures of hypnotherapy, and I’m trying to navigate the two worlds to integrate the best of both. I’m a 42-year-old woman who is neither a mother nor a career woman, has never desired children and has no instinct toward ‘nesting’. And the result of all that is a whole lot of people looking at me incredulously asking “Really?”. And the result of THAT is a constant nagging feeling that I’m doing it all wrong, coupled with shame that I’m not attracted to the things that are ‘right’.

According to Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, we constantly compare ourselves to others across a number of domains to understand who we are, judge our own progress and evaluate ourselves. We compare ourselves to others who are like us to make sure we’re doing the right thing, so we can feel assured and validated. But what if there is nobody else who seems to be like you? What if you compare yourself to other people based on your gender and age and see that in socially salient domains you continually come up short? I have a whole lot more freedom and independence than most other women in their forties, but those dimensions are generally regarded as immature, irresponsible, or ‘running away’ from ‘reality’. Not having this framework of reassurance and certainty is a perfect petri dish for breeding uncertainty and anxiety. The path less travelled is overgrown and weedy for a reason.

Group conformity serves to make the world more predictable, allowing us to make some assumptions about how people will behave. Like it or not, we DO judge books by their covers. We utilise categories or ‘schemas’ constantly, using physical characteristics or the barest noticeable facts to make judgements about people before we’ve even exchanged words with them. If people don’t fit into our coherent, predictable schemas, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Despite a long list of positive references, whenever I begin a new housesit I can see the owner scanning my physical characteristics, making a note of my flip-flops, dreads and unmade-up face, asking questions to try and figure out what category I fit into before they leave me in charge of their home and pets.

Which brings me to the Negativity Bias. Anything we perceive as being negative is going to become the most obvious factor in how we judge someone, which social psychology suggests was an evolutionary advantage. If you meet someone who is warm, friendly and generous but has trouble making eye contact, or is secretive about some part of their life, you can bet you’ll hone in on that issue and judge everything else through that lens. She seems untrustworthy, perhaps she is being friendly and generous because she wants something? In my case, I often see people form their judgements of me based on my ‘failure’ to have a stable home, family or career, and the pink dreadlocks probably contribute. ‘Schemas’ or stereotypes are cognitively adaptive and slow to change, so once someone has formed that judgement it becomes very difficult to shift — in fact, research shows that people will overlook information that challenges their judgement and seek out clues that confirm the beliefs they already hold. And since pretty much everyone believes their way is the right way and holds some level of fear of the unknown, you can see how being ‘different’ starts to create a whole lot of discomfort for everyone.

And yet, those of us who choose it would never go back to cramming our round selves into square holes. Once you’ve broken out of claustrophobic moulds and ill-fitting templates and put even a toe on your honest individual path — whatever they may be — it’s nearly impossible to seriously consider them an option anymore. I don’t want to make choices based on how well I fit into the world — I want the world to stretch to make space for me, and those people like me, and those people completely different to me, and those completely different to anyone. The world would be a real boring place if everyone was just like you, after all.