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!