4 Ways to Build Emotional Resilience

Do you bounce back from challenging experiences?  Or do you get stuck, caught in a whirlwind of difficult emotions, feeling vulnerable, lost or out of control?  Emotional resilience is the ability to handle and adapt well to relationship problems, trauma, health problems, tragedy, financial stressors and other curve balls of life.  Resilience can be tougher for those who have experienced prior trauma, unstable attachment to parents early on and other de-stabilizing experiences.  And then there are those who despite being faced with incredible challenges seem to be inherently resilient.

If you don’t feel particularly resilient, know that you can deepen your sense of well-being and begin to build your own emotional resilience toolbox.  The more you practice, the more you can literally change the way your brain is wired to facilitate a happier and more peaceful life.  It can be developed in anyone.

Here are 4 ways you can start building emotional resilience:

Practice self-compassion.  According to Dr. Kristin, Neff, PhD, self-compassion is “an alternative to self-esteem that many psychologists believe is a better and more effective path to happiness.”  It is simply applying the same concern and warm wishes for the suffering to end of a good friend – as for your own suffering.  Imagine how you would be with that person in their time of pain and struggle. Consider your body language, words and energy towards that person.  Self-compassion is transferring that intention to yourself.  Research has shown that self-compassion not only reduces self-critical thoughts but the stress hormone cortisol.

Slow down.   We have become a culture of hamsters on wheels, many who run until they fall off the wheel in sheer exhaustion.  Have you considered where you are running to or if there is a finish line?  Notice your internal voices and belief systems around being a human “doing” rather than a human “being.”  What’s the worse thing that would happen if you slowed down and even paused every so often.  You might be surprised to learn what you’ve been missing.  Perhaps there are important relationship that aren’t being tended to.  Maybe self-care is out the window.  There are always consequences to moving too fast through life.  Speediness also has a way of triggering the brain into a fight-or-flight response leading to overreactions and irritability.  Over time, the stress hormones being released in the body of someone who is always rushing and in a state of alarm can negatively impact their health.  Why sound the alarm when you don’t need to?  Save it for a real emergency!

Practice gratitude.  “Gratitude optimizes our functioning as human beings, and provides an essential foundation to our personal well-being,” says Linda Graham, MFT.  Research has demonstrated a long list of benefits of practicing gratitude including:

  • helps block toxic emotions like envy, resentment, regret, hostility and depression
  • brings closure to unresolved traumatic memories
  • improves longevity (by 7-9 years)
  • strengthens social ties (people feel more connected to people, less lonely and isolated)

Being grateful doesn’t mean ignoring life’s struggles but rather taking in and noticing what is good in your life.  It can be anything the warm feelings you feel for a friend to a beautiful flower you never noticed outside your office window.

Practice humility.  Many seek to build their egos via recognition.  According to Rick Hanson, PhD, “Humility embodies wisdom.  It recognizes that everyone, including the grandest, is humbled by needing to depend on a vast web – of people, technology, culture, nature, sunlight, and biochemistry – to live a single day.  Fame is soon forgotten…With humility, you pursue excellence, not fame.”  Seek to understand what drives the need for “fame,” what’s healthy and what doesn’t necessarily serve you or those around you well.   When we seek excellence, we don’t have the same attachment to the outcome as when we seek fame.  We simply do the best we know how – and this is good.

If you’re interested in learning more about the brain science of emotional resilience see the Neuroscience of Resilience Series.