4 “Can’t-Miss” Tools for Improved Resilience and Emotional Health

I attended the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington DC recently and left with some highly useful tools to benefit your emotional health from the workshop, Neuroscience and the Art of Self Care conducted by Linda Graham, MFT.  If you struggle with your own emotional reactivity at times – and are interested in building resilience and the ability to stay grounded when triggered, the following tools can help.

Here are 4 “Can’t-Miss” Tools for Improved Resilience and Emotional Health:

  • Hand on the heart.  Sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breathing.  Place your hand on your heart and continue to breathe in and out slowly.  Call to mind a moment of being with someone who loves you unconditionally, someone you feel completely safe with.  If there is no one that represents this level of safety, call to mind a beloved pet.  As you remember feeling safe and loved, see if you can feel the feelings and sensations that come up.  Sit with the feeling for at least 30 seconds.

The neuroscience:  Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the calming branch.  Breathing positive emotions into the heart center calms the heart rate variability.  Remembering moments of feeling safe and love activates the release of oxytocin in the brain, the hormone of safety and trust, bonding and attachment, calm and connect.  The warm touch of the hand on the heart also helps release oxytocin.

  • Gratitude practice.  Pause for a moment and begin to think of how other people, in this moment in your life, are keeping your life going.  The grocery clerks, medical staff, those growing our food, recycling our garbage; the web of life that keeps our life going moment to moment.  Feel gratitude for the helping hands and unsung heroes of our daily existence.

The neuroscience:  Any experience causes neurons in the brain to fire.  Installing positive emotions in our neural circuitry, especially in the complex pro-social emotions of kindness, compassion, generosity, joy, patience, tranquility – we create the neural pathways in our brains that make it much more likely we’ll respond to life events with an open heart rather than a contracted one, with resilience rather than fear, with approach rather than withdrawal.

  • Salt in the lake.  Sit comfortably and focus your awareness inward.  In your imagination, bring in all the resources that help you feel safe; people and/or pets.  Allow yourself to have a visual image, feelings, body sensations as you evoke these inner resources.  Allow a small troubling memory to come up along with the feeling you have associated with the memory.  Then bring to mind a second positive memory that contradicts or disconfirms the troubling memory.  Hold both memories in your awareness at the same time; a dual awareness.

The neuroscience:  When we recall a memory, it activates the firing of the neural network of that memory.  When we bring to mind a second memory, a positive memory, a memory of feeling well resourced, feeling good about ourselves, we’re activating the firing of its neurons.  The second more positive memory is re-wiring the first more troubling memory, often instantly.  If the second positive memory is strong enough, it will trump the reconsolidation of the first more troubling memory and it can dissolve.  The re-pairing of neural networks re-wires the brain.

  • Wished for outcome.  Close your eyes and call to mind a moment of experience when things went awry, however slight or terrible.  You wish you had done something differently, you wish somebody else could have done something differently – or none of it happened at all.  As you recall the scenario again in your mind, let the story unfold as you would have wished, with as much detail as possible.  Let your mind play out the revised scenario and any emotions, thoughts or beliefs about yourself that come up.  Let them soak in.

The neuroscience:  Guided visualizations are powerful tools for re-wiring the brain.  The same neurons fire in our visual cortex when we imagine a banana as when we see a banana for real.  When we are remembering a person or situation in visual memory, the processing is as real in the brain as when are seeing it in person.

Wanna know about recent research around relationships?  See my piece, 4 “Must-Knows” for a Happy, Healthy and Connected Relationship