Emotional Resilience

Stress is a fact of modern life – seemingly everywhere and all the time. There are so many sources of stress: caring for children, disabled persons, and elderly parents, holding down a job, and making time for a social life are all everyday sources of stress. Added to these everyday stresses are extraordinary events such as deaths, serious illnesses, natural disasters and social upheavals that often occur randomly and without warning. It is easy to become frustrated by the great number of pressures that consume you on any given day. Over time, the cumulative effects of multiple stressors, small and large, can combine to wear you out before you’ve had a chance to get started.

Stress can overwhelm your defenses despite your best efforts at coping. In the short term, you may lose your temper, your blood pressure may soar, and you may even feel sick to your stomach. Over the longer term, the cumulative nature of stress can keep you on edge long after individual stressful events have passed, and can even contribute to medical problems. For example, unresolved and lingering stressful feelings of anger, hostility, and aggression appear to make the development of heart disease and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) more likely to occur.

There is no escaping stress, but there are ways you can learn to handle stress better when it is present, and to ‘bounce back’ faster from its impact. The collection of skills, characteristics, habits and outlooks that make it possible to remain maximally flexible and fresh in the face of stress is often referred to as “emotional resilience”, which is the topic of this document. Learning to become more emotionally resilient can dramatically improve your attitude and your health in the face of inevitable stress.

To be resilient means to be able to ‘spring back’ into shape after being deformed. To be emotionally resilient means to be able to spring back emotionally after suffering through difficult and stressful times in one’s life. Stressed people experience a flood of powerful negative emotions which may include anger, anxiety, and depression. Some people remain trapped in these negative emotions long after the stressful events that have caused them have passed. Emotionally resilient people, on the other hand, are quickly able to bounce back to their normal emotional state.

The Resilient Attitude

How do they do it? What is it about emotionally resilient people that make them more effective at managing stress than non-resilient people? The key difference between the groups appears to be that emotionally resilient people have a specific set of attitudes concerning themselves and their role in the world that motivates and enables them to cope more efficiently and effectively than their non-resilient peers.

Specifically, emotionally resilient people tend to:

  • Have realistic and attainable expectations and goals.
  • Show good judgment and problem-solving skills.
  • Be persistent and determined.
  • Be responsible and thoughtful rather than impulsive.
  • Be effective communicators with good people skills.
  • Learn from past experience so as to not repeat mistakes.
  • Be empathetic toward other people (caring how others around them are feeling).
  • Have a social conscience, (caring about the welfare of others).
  • Feel good about themselves as a person.
  • Feel like they are in control of their lives.
  • Be optimistic rather than pessimistic.

These special beliefs characteristic of resilient people help them to keep proper perspective, and to persist with coping efforts long after less resilient types become demoralized and give up. In order to become a more resilient person, it is necessary to work on cultivating these beliefs and attitudes for your own life.

The attitudes that underly emotional resilience is powerful because they enable people who subscribe to them to cope with great efficiency and effectiveness. It’s not really that emotionally resilient people know more or better coping skills than do non-resilient people. It’s more that they are better able to apply the coping skills that they do know that are non-resilient people.

Consider, if you will, that the first principle of coping successfully is to believe that it is possible to cope. Resilient people believe that they have the potential for control over their lives; they believe that they can influence their situation. Non-resilient people tend not to share this belief, and consequently, their stress-coping efforts don’t fair as well. People don’t work at coping when they don’t believe that coping can help.

Stress is stressful precisely because it is a source of negative emotions: depression, anxiety, anger. These negative emotions exert a powerful influence over perception. While you are experiencing negative emotions it can easily seem that there is no way to resist them. Depression, for example, often feels like it is a permanent condition that must simply be experienced; that nothing can be done to make it go away. Though this perception of being helpless in the face of negative emotion is seductive, it is not necessarily true. It is possible to consciously influence and change one’s negative moods to more positive moods. Simply deciding to exercise (physically) when feeling stressed can temporarily lift one’s mood, for instance. Rationally challenging negatively-exaggerated perceptions is another effective method for lifting one’s mood. It is, in fact, quite possible to think or act one’s self into a better mood. Resilient people understand this intuitively. For the rest of us, there is a scientific explanation as to how this is possible.

Mind Over Matter

The past quarter-century of neurological research has revolutionized our understanding of how the brain creates and regulates emotion. Scientists used to think that the limbic system, a set of brain structures occurring above the brain stem but below the wrinkled, walnut-shaped cortex, was wholly responsible for producing and managing emotions. Recent studies suggest that it is not that simple. Though emotional impulses do originate in the limbic system, our expression of those emotions is regulated by the prefrontal cortex, a cortical brain structure located just behind the forehead which is associated with judgment and decision making.

The involvement of the prefrontal cortex in emotional responding is one of the things that separates humans from animals. Animals have little control over their expression of emotions. When an animal’s limbic system becomes activated, that animal will experience and act out the resulting emotion. Scared animals will instinctually run and hide, or get aggressive, for instance. Human beings, on the other hand, are able to make judgments and decisions regarding their emotional state and to act on those decisions even when those decisions run counter to their emotional state. Frightened humans can evaluate whether or not their fears are justified, and act counter to their fears, for instance, making a speech in public despite being afraid of possible negative judgments that might result. People’s ability to change the way they experience emotion is important for two reasons: first because it means that people have a real, if limited, capacity to snap out of negative emotions that don’t serve them, and second because choosing to snap out of negative emotions is usually a good decision that can have a positive influence on one’s overall health.

In part then, resilient people believe they can change their moods, and so they work to change their moods. The less resilient among us can instead fall prey to hopelessness. A major purpose of this document is to help convince those of you who do fall prey to the hopelessness that it is possible to become more resilient. We’ve just described how-how it is possible that you can change your negative moods to more positive ones. Now, let us tell you why it is a very good idea to do this.

The first reason you should work to become more resilient is that the positive moods that you’ll enjoy more of when you become more resilient are really good for your health.

Accumulating research suggests that the positive emotions (happiness, contentment, joy, etc.) are associated with healthy immune system functioning. Conversely, the negative emotions are associated with the weaker immune function, greater production of stress hormones such as Cortisol, and greater incidence of illnesses. These findings suggest that how you habitually feel is much related to how vigorously you can resist illness.

To illustrate, consider that in one study depressed women suffering from breast cancer were found to have fewer immune system cells and weaker overall immune functioning when compared to non-depressed breast cancer sufferers. Because the immune system’s job is, in part, to hunt down and kill cancer cells, depressed breast cancer sufferers weaker immune function means that their bodies are less likely to be able to resist their cancers. In the same vein, another study found that depressed bone marrow transplant patients were significantly more likely to die during the first post-treatment year than were nondepressed transplant recipients.

Positive emotions are not just window-dressing; they are intimately tied up with your immune function efficiency and your physical health. If you can learn to cope better with stress so as to avoid becoming depressed, and to lessen the time you spend feeling negative you can have a positive impact on your emotional and physical health.

Positive emotions benefit your social health as well as your physical health. Sharing of positive emotions with others helps to bond people together, creating and maintaining strong, healthy, and caring relationships. Caring relationships, in turn, provide social support which nourishes further emotional resilience, and positive feeling states. It is a circular, self-reinforcing movement towards health. The better you feel, and the more you share that positive feeling with others, the more you are able to draw upon the relationships you create through that sharing to create further positive feelings.

The social support benefits of relationships are numerous and important:

  • Close caring relationships offer opportunities to express and to receive love, both of which are important for identity, self-worth, and self-esteem. They offer a path towards becoming part of something larger than yourself which-which you can identify in a positive manner. They keep you from feeling lonely. They support you when you are down. They are environments in which it becomes likely you will experience positive states: 1) feeling accepted and cared for, and 2) happy playfulness.
  • Inside the give and take of relating are many opportunities to practice social skills (which turn out to be resilience skills as will become clear later on). Healthy relationships promote communication, reciprocity, and compassion. They also function as a sounding board and can provide opportunities for reality testing. Friends may offer workable solutions to problems you would have never come up with on your own.
  • By offering you opportunities to network with people you would not otherwise meet, relationships can benefit you economically (by helping you to find work or work opportunities), and romantically (by introducing you to potential romantic partners).

Where positive feelings help you to build relationships, negative feelings do the opposite. Depressed, negative feeling states tend to break relationships down and erode social support. Negative feelings tend to be consuming and to promote self-centeredness. They do not motivate people to attend to the needs of others. Though friends and family often want to support their depressed relationship partners, they find this a difficult task as depressed, negative people tend to withdraw from offers of support and to isolate themselves. It is ultimately frustrating to remain in relationships with negative-minded people and one by one, the relationships that depressed people have to grow more distant or extinguish.

There are real health and wellness benefits of being resilient. It’s something worth striving for if you aren’t already that way. Importantly, resilience is a learnable skill. Most anyone can become more emotionally resilient if they work at it.

Growing in emotional resilience requires that you work towards greater self-knowledge. It is important, for example, that you to learn to identify how you react to emotional situations. Becoming aware of how you react when stressed helps you gain better control over those reactions. A good framework to help guide you towards becoming more aware of your emotions is something called Emotional Intelligence.

The term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ was coined by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990. It can be defined as your ability to use your emotions intelligently and appropriately in different situations, combined with your ability to use emotions to make yourself more intelligent overall. Emotionally intelligent people are able to accurately recognize and comprehend emotion, both in themselves and in others, to appropriately express emotion, and to be able to control their own emotion so as to facilitate their own emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth. In short, emotionally intelligent people intentionally use their thinking and behavior to guide their emotions rather than letting their emotions dictate their thinking and behavior. People who are highly emotionally intelligent tend to also be highly emotionally resilient.

In order to become more emotionally intelligent, it is necessary to develop the following five skill domains:

  • Self-awareness. Self-awareness involves your ability to recognize feelings while they are happening.
  • Emotional management. Emotional management involves your ability to control the feelings you express so that they remain appropriate to a given situation. Becoming skillful at emotional management requires that you cultivate skills such as maintaining perspective, being able to calm yourself down, and being able to shake off out-of-control grumpiness, anxiety, or sadness.
  • Self-motivation. Self-motivation involves your ability to keep your actions goal-directed even when distracted by emotions. Self-motivation necessarily includes being able to delay gratification and avoid acting in impulsive ways.
  • Empathy. Empathy involves your ability to notice and correctly interpret the needs and wants of other people. Empathy is the characteristic that leads to altruism, which is your willingness put the needs of others ahead of your own needs.
  • Relationship Management. Relationship management involves your ability to anticipate, understand, and appropriately respond to the emotions of others. It is closely related to empathy.

These various skills work together to form the basis of emotionally intelligent behavior.

People come to the challenge of emotional intelligence with different strengths and weaknesses. Where some find it easy to develop self-awareness and empathy, others have a difficult time, or don’t easily recognize the need. Luckily, emotional intelligence (likewise emotional resilience) is something that can be cultivated and developed. You have the ability to learn how to better work with emotions so as to improve your mental, physical, and social health.

In order to develop the five emotional intelligence skill domains, you’ll need to become skillful at the following tasks:

Noticing Emotion

By their nature, emotions are consuming. During the moment, it is very easy to simply remain embedded inside them and not quite recognize that they are occurring. In an emotionally embedded state, it is as though you are asleep, or helpless to act differently than the emotion wants you to act. You might find yourself doing things you will later regret doing while in such a state.

As self-awareness grows, you become able to notice emotion as it is occurring. Noticing emotion allows you to step back from it, and witness it as though it were happening to someone else. Noticing emotion separates you from that emotion and therefore provides you with space you need to recognize that the emotion is happening, and to form judgments as to whether your actions in response to the emotion are proper. A self-aware person is awake and responsible rather than asleep. They are conscious of what they are feeling and can use their understanding of their emotion to change how they act.

In order to notice emotion while it is happening, you must pay attention to the following:

  • Your Senses. Emotions get expressed physically and are reflected in one’s body and posture. Specific behaviors like clenched fists or gritted teeth are good signals that one is probably angry, for example.
  • Your Thoughts and Beliefs. Emotions are also expressed as thoughts. It is fairly common for particular types of thoughts and beliefs to only be present when you are upset. Your learning to notice that those emotion-linked thoughts are present in your mind becomes a clue that you are upset. For example, many people say thing to themselves like, “Things will never ever get better, ever again!”, when upset, but not say this sort of thing to themselves when they are feeling okay. If you do something like this, you can learn to recognize when you are doing it and use that knowledge to know when you are upset.
  • Your Actions. Emotions have behavioral components. Learn to recognize the way you act while upset. Noticing that you are suddenly raising your voice or starting to speak over other people might be clues that you are upset.
  • Your Triggers. Triggers are situations, people, places, feelings, thoughts or objects that get you to start thinking or feeling something you would not otherwise have thought or felt. Triggers can often start you down the road towards becoming upset without your conscious awareness. Identify your triggers by watching for the things that set you off, and then writing them down. Knowing what your triggers help you to anticipate them so that they don’t catch you off guard. Generate a plan for handling each trigger so that it doesn’t get the best of you.
  • Your Motives. Think about how you believe people should conduct themselves in various different situations. For instance, ask yourself which is better behavior when speaking with one’s spouse: calm discussion or screaming? Later, compare your own behavior against your list and see if you meet your own standards. Learn to notice when you are not meeting your own standards of conduct. Your noticing when you are not meeting your own standards of conduct can become a clue as to when you are upset.

Identifying Emotion

Having noticed the signs that emotions are occurring, your next step is to understand and identify those emotions. You can begin this process by asking yourself questions that will help you understand the ways that emotion has affected you. Good questions to ask include:

  • What am I feeling now?
  • What are my senses telling me?
  • What is it that I want?
  • What judgments or conclusions have I made (and are they accurate)?
  • What is this emotion trying to tell me?

The answers to these questions are key to using your emotions in the service of your life goals, rather than allowing your emotions to use you.

Often, your physiological (body) reactions suggest vital clues to the nature of your emotional state. If your face begins to get warm while you are talking with someone, you may be embarrassed. If you have “butterflies” in your stomach, you may be nervous. If you feel excited and giddy and there is a smile on your face, you may be happy. If your head pounds, your heart races, and you feel increasingly tense and hot, you are probably angry. However, if you feel tense, your heart is pounding, your palms are sweating, and you feel cold, you are probably frightened rather than angry.

You can also learn to identify emotions based on the way they make you feel, think and act. Perhaps certain memories come to the surface of your mind when you are feeling sad that aren’t there at other times. Perhaps you were hurt in the past by a romantic partner with a particularly striking face, and find over time that when you meet new people who remind you of that partner, you automatically respond negatively towards them. Consciously knowing what you are feeling and why may suggest a set of actions you can take to help you change your feelings.

Managing Emotion

Understanding your emotions makes it possible for you to manage them so that they work for rather than against you. For instance, having established that you are feeling sad, you can take steps to make yourself feel happier. More pointedly, if your sadness (or anger, or anxiety, etc.) would normally influence you to act in a way that might damage yourself or someone else, becoming aware of that emotion can enable you to take steps to not act in that destructive way.

As an example, suppose you are in a meeting at work and your boss calls your carefully researched proposal “a stupid harebrained idea”. A careless comment like this might make you angry: your heart beats faster, your head pounds, your blood pressure goes up, and you experience a compelling urge to give your boss a piece of your mind. Though you want to yell at your boss, doing so might likely get you into trouble, and might even get you fired. A better solution would be to suppress your outburst by actively managing your emotion, respectfully disagreeing with your boss, and then later finding a safe outlet for your hurt feelings.

Assuming you are an emotionally intelligent person, you might manage such a hurtful comment in the following way:

  • First, by recognizing that your pounding head and racing heart are signs that you are angry.
  • Next, by thinking about your goals with regard to your relationship with your boss (e.g, to maintain steady employment). Although giving your boss a piece of your angry mind would likely help you feel better in the short term, doing so could ultimately create serious problems. Recognizing this danger, you might decide that while your boss’s comment was unreasonable and even sadistic, there is nothing particularly useful to be gained by sinking to his level.
  • Later, after the meeting is done, you can think about ways to handle your boss’s tendency to put you down. Soliciting opinions and help from knowledgeable other people who care about you may help you figure out the best way to proceed. You may need to look for another job or a departmental transfer. Alternatively, a private meeting with your boss or with your human resources staff might result in successful resolution of the problem.

By actively managing your emotions, you are taking steps towards becoming more emotionally resilient. You are also taking steps to avoid pitfalls and problems that strong emotions would otherwise push you towards.

Early on in this document, we said that the foundation of emotional resilience (and thus emotional intelligence) is largely a matter of attitude and belief. How people think about themselves and their relationships with others and the world forms the base on which emotion management skills sit. Negative, defeatist attitudes towards self and others make it more difficult for you to successfully manage your emotions. Positive, empowering attitudes, on the other hand, make emotional resilience seem like second nature.

Emotionally resilient people tend to display the following positive characteristics:

  • Happiness
  • Control
  • Optimism
  • Mindfulness and Flow
  • Hardiness
  • Communication
  • Relationships
  • Compassion and Empathy

In the next major section of this document, we’ll explore each of these characteristics attributes (beliefs, attitudes) in greater detail. It is worth your while to learn about and practice these attitudes, for doing so will make it easier for you to become more resilient and self-aware and to be able to consciously manage your emotions as necessary to benefit your life.

Happiness is elusive for many people. The vast majority of us are raised to think that obtaining material things will make us happy. Food clothing and shelter are not enough to satisfy. For example, once you purchase the house you’ve been saving for, you start thinking about the furniture you want to buy or how the landscaping needs to change. Each desire, once satisfied, gives birth to new desires in an endless progression. The more we buy into the idea that we’ll be happy when we have enough of the right sort of possessions, the more trapped we become. We become jealous of people who have more than we do, and we risk bankruptcy to pay for things with credit we can’t afford. The more ‘stuff’ we desire, the less happy we are.

The facts are: possessions don’t make people happy, except when there isn’t enough of it to purchase the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter. Studies examining the relationship between family income and happiness show that money is only related to happiness when there really isn’t enough of it and real deprivation occurs. No relationship has been measured between money and happiness for any family living above poverty wages, suggesting that once basic needs are taken care of, further happiness cannot be bought at any price. As a result of these types of findings, researchers now consider happiness to depend on less on people’s actual circumstances and more on how people choose to respond to their circumstances.

Your happiness is not dependent on whether you drive the right car, live in the right neighborhood, or wear the latest clothes. Instead, how happy you are depending on how you approach your life and the people around you. True satisfaction is not about getting what you want but rather is about wanting what you have. Learning to be content with what you have is the true path to happiness.

Traits of Happy People

In order to learn how to be content with our own lives, we need to understand what makes some people generally happier than others. Researchers have found four inner traits that predispose people to have positive attitudes and to be content or happy more often than not. These traits are:

  • Self-esteem. Happy people respect their value as human beings and have confidence in themselves. When times get tough, people with a solid sense of self-worth and a firm belief in their own competence are the very people who persist until the tough times have passed.
  • Personal Control. Happy people believe that they have control over what happens to them. They tend to believe that they are actively in charge of their own destiny rather than being a passive victim of fate.
  • Optimism. Happy people are hopeful people. They expect they have a decent chance to succeed when they try something new. They see the proverbial glass of life as half full rather than half empty.
  • Extroversion. Happy people tend to be outgoing and sociable. They often find it a pleasure to be around others, rather than a chore.

Even in old age, happy individuals tend to be cheerful and full of the joie de vivre – the ‘joy of life’. People who like themselves are confident that other people will like them too. They have friends and they engage in rewarding social activities through which they experience affection and social support. Social support, in turn, reinforces happy people’s sense of self-esteem, in a circle of health. Social support is an important part of the foundation supporting a happy person’s sense of well-being and positive outlook on life.

Becoming a Happier Person

Not everyone is born extroverted with high self-esteem and an optimistic outlook. Some people are more pessimistic by nature, prone to depression, to not think well of themselves and to find social activities to be more work than play. Can such pessimistic people become happy despite their nature? The answer is yes.

The way to cultivate greater happiness is deceptively simple. Pretend that you are self-confident and optimistic. You might think that pretending to be happier couldn’t possibly work, but in fact, if you give it half a chance, it can indeed help you to become a happier person. There is a very real sense in which being happy is a habit. You can strengthen your own habit of being happy by practicing it again and again. As you become more and more comfortable acting happy, the phoniness will diminish and the happy behaviors and attitudes you have been practicing will begin to feel more natural.

The same goes for your interactions with other people. Pretend to be more outgoing than you are. Smile. Act like you like the people you meet, and you will likely find that you actually do like some of them! As a bonus, you may also find out that you are beginning to like yourself better, that you feel more confident, and that you are becoming more comfortable with other people. These changes can help you feel greater happiness in your life and more optimism for the future.