Research-backed practices that strengthen your emotional resilience
If you want to learn a thing or two about emotional resilience, just talk to entrepreneur Ash Ambirge, creator of The Middle Finger Project. She’s been looked down on because she grew up in a trailer park. She’s been fired from jobs she worked hard to land. She’s had her heart broken and her savings stolen on the same day. She’s spent more than a few nights sleeping in her car. Yet even after all that, she’s still standing.
Ash may not have born into an easy life of uninterrupted success, but she has always bounced back. You might even say she’s bounced forward. “The act of contributing meaningfully requires you to step out,” she says. “Your every weakness will be on display, but so will your courage.”
That’s the essence of emotional resilience: the ability to experience something stressful without letting it destroy your resolve, sense of purpose, or hopes for the future. It’s more than just keeping calm and carrying on. Being emotionally resilient means that you can acknowledge and metabolize negative feelings instead of locking them away or being overwhelmed by them. When an emotionally resilient person wears a brave face, there’s genuine bravery and optimism behind it.
If your resilience is starting to wear thin, take heart. Psychologists have been studying resilience for decades and their body of research suggests many ways to cultivate it. Some of them, such as practicing patience, can’t be practiced any ol’ time you like – you have to wait for a stressful event to catch you by surprise. Others, like journaling, self-compassion, practicing gratitude, and promoting hope are available to us any time, any day. More on those below, including ways to extend your practice to include your family, friends, and colleagues.
Why bother building emotional resilience?
Resilience is important to our sense of balance, whether that’s work-life balance or our ability to navigate challenging situations successfully. It helps us feel like we can control how we respond to events, even when we don’t control the events themselves and acts as a buffer against anxiety and depression. Moreover, emotional resilience helps us achieve more because it makes us better problem solvers when things go awry.
There’s even evidence to suggest that resilience helps support the immune system. Stress hormones like cortisol are involved in triggering the immune system response. However, the immune system can build up a tolerance to cortisol when levels stay elevated for long periods of time, thereby leaving us more susceptible to illness. Cultivating emotional resilience helps regulate your stress levels and keeps your immune system responsive.
4 daily practices that foster emotional resilience
You’ve probably experienced a sense of relief after confiding in a trusted friend. But did you know you can get that same sense of relief without having to disclose your deepest thoughts to another human? Reflective journaling has been shown to improve emotional stamina and resilience among nurses. (And if anybody has to absorb a lot of drama on the job, it’s a nurse.)
When we write down our experiences, we tend to ascribe meaning to them, says Debra Jackson, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney. This can lead to new insights and a deeper understanding of ourselves. Over time, we may recognize patterns in our behavior or emotional responses and respond more constructively in the future. Furthermore, reflecting on your successes promotes a sense of pride, which also contributes to resilience.
You don’t have to journal every day or write long entries in order to get the benefits. Still, it’s not a bad idea to keep your journal in your backpack or at your desk so it’s always handy. You don’t have to use pen and paper, either. Many people use a simple text file on their computer, and some people even do voice recordings. For the artistically inclined, a sketch journal might do the trick.
Whatever format you choose, make a point to create an entry on days you experience big highs or lows. Capturing those moments and your feelings about them while it’s all fresh in your mind means your entry will be more authentic and detailed, and therefore, more beneficial.
Holding regular retrospectives with your team serves the same purpose as journaling. As you think back on the significant events of the past month, what’s working well, and what’s not, capture the team’s thoughts on Trello cards, a shared document, or a whiteboard (just be sure to take a picture). Over time, this living record will expose patterns suggest new ways of working together that help your team hold steady in the face of setbacks.
For those new to the concept of self-compassion, it might sound a lot like self-esteem. There are a few key differences, however. Self-esteem is your sense of worth (or lack thereof), often based on external factors like accomplishments or how you compare to others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, comes from the inside. It’s about resisting the urge to pass judgment on ourselves and treating ourselves with the same kindness we show to others. But there are limits.
Self-compassion isn’t the same as giving yourself a free pass every time you mess up. Dr. Kristen Neff, a leading researcher on the subject says it’s about “mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” Instead of getting down on yourself when times are hard, ask yourself what you can learn from it and have faith that you’ll get through it – just like billions of people who’ve come before you.
Neff offers a collection of free guided meditations touching on various aspects of self-compassion, like noticing your emotions and giving yourself permission to receive compassion. (Because yes, you really do deserve it, and no, accepting compassion is not a sign of weakness.) She has also designed thought exercises around reframing your negative self-talk and motivating yourself with kind words that can be incorporated into a regular self-compassion practice.
So where does all this get you? A meta-analysis of several studies showed that self-compassion can act as a buffer against the negative feelings we harbor about ourselves, including allowing people to “acknowledge their role in negative events without feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions.” Self-compassion is also strongly correlated with well-being and may be an effective intervention for those suffering from chronically negative views of themselves. It’s even been shown to reduce the impact of trauma among combat veterans.
Banish all scapegoating. When working through a problem in your personal or professional life, start with the assumption that everyone involved was acting in good faith and to the best of their abilities. (It won’t always turn out to be true, but if “innocent until proven guilty” is good enough for the law, it’s good enough for the rest of us.) Seek to understand other people’s actions and the reasons behind them instead of jumping straight to judgment. You might find that they weren’t acting unreasonably after all, and together you can figure out a better way forward.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to know instinctively that feeling grateful for all the good things in your life helps you deal with the bad things. In the book she co-authored with organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, shares a story that poignantly illustrates the effect gratitude can have.
During the early days [after my husband died of sudden heart failure], my instinct was to try to find positive thoughts. Adam told me the opposite: that it was a good idea to think about how much worse things could be. “Worse?” I asked him. “Are you kidding me? How could this be worse?” His answer cut through me: “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” Wow. The thought that I could have lost all three of them had never occurred to me. I instantly felt overwhelmingly grateful that my children were alive and healthy.
She goes on to explain how the gratitude she felt overshadowed some of her grief and acted as a tailwind as she moved forward with her life.
The connection between gratitude and resilience lies at the neurotransmitter level. Our brain releases serotonin and dopamine (the “happiness chemicals”) when we express or receive gratitude. Plus, researchers have found that the two areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and memory, the amygdala and the hippocampus, activate when we feel gratitude. With a daily gratitude practice, these neuropathways get stronger, resulting in more sustained feelings of contentment.
As with any regular practice, the key to practicing gratitude on the regular is to choose a method that integrates naturally with the rest of your life. For example, at our house we go around the table at dinner and share one thing that we’re thankful for that day. Others make a habit of pausing for a moment as they get out of bed and meditating on what they’re grateful for. That simple act sets them up to move through their day with balance and perspective. Studies involving people with neuromuscular and sleep disorders found that making nightly entries in a gratitude journal improved their sleep quality – those positive thoughts stay us as we drift off.
Acknowledging a colleague for a win they scored or contribution they made feels great and can be as easy as dropping a note in your team’s chat room. Make this a habit and you’ll be surprised how fast it catches on – gratitude is contagious! If you’re a manager, consider setting aside a budget for small peer-to-peer thank you gifts as well.
Ok: hope isn’t a “practice,” per se. It’s a state of being similar to resilience in that both help you stay optimistic in the face of adversity. Not surprisingly, studies have found that hope takes the edge off day-to-day stresses because hope is rooted in a sense of agency and ability. In other words, it makes us feel like we have the ability to turn that stressful event into something more positive or find ways to avoid it altogether in the future.
Cultivating hope within yourself isn’t as straightforward as keeping a gratitude journal (although that does help). Whenever we find joy in something, that ignites hope. How you find that joy is up to you: belief in something larger than yourself, escaping to nature, spending time on a hobby or with people you love. And don’t forget to celebrate each victory, no matter how small, so you create a sense of momentum as you move through life.
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