Six ways of developing emotional resilience
The current global crisis has certainly created new worries and fears or emphasised pre-existing ones. At the same time, it is offering an opportunity to re-establish our priorities, i.e. to re-evaluate the importance we give to things based on our authentic needs.
This is particularly relevant for goal-oriented individuals who have a tendency to neglect their deeper needs in favour of outward success. People who fall under this personality type – the Achiever of the Enneagram typing system – find it difficult to relax and fully detach from work-related matters. And they seem to form a big chunk of the population in this day and age, particularly in big cities. It’s as though we lived in a society of workaholics, where career and status are the primary focus, often to the detriment of other major aspects of life, such as health, human relationships and emotional wellbeing.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, is having a strong psychological impact on every one of us, regardless of our personality type, age or social status. Whether or not we are aware of it, it is plunging us all into some sort of existential crisis – or re-evaluation, as I prefer to call it. Which is fertile soil for introspection work.
Whatever your professional or financial circumstances, your ability to live with uncertainty is currently being put to the test - as is your ability to cope with self-isolation, or at least with less socialisation. Introverts, of course, will be faring better at the latter test than the extroverts amongst us. But our ability to cope with uncertainty has little to do with personality type and much more with our degree of emotional resilience.
What exactly is emotional resilience?
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the ancient Latin word ‘resilio’, which means ‘to leap’ or ‘to spring back’. Emotional resilience means being able to bounce back from a stressful situation without allowing it to kill our motivation, self-esteem and positive thinking.
In short, emotional resilience is about adaptability. The more capable we are to adapt to and embrace change, the better able we are to cope with challenging circumstances.
How do we develop resilience?
First and foremost, by cultivating our self-awareness, i.e. our ability to see ourselves as clearly and objectively as possible. In psychology, self-awareness theory is based on the idea that you are not your thoughts, but the entity observing your thoughts.
Much of our thinking is done automatically and many of our thoughts tend to be driven by worry and fear. Particularly during times of crisis, this tendency can lead to catastrophising.
Negative automatic thoughts (NATs) come and go so quickly that you’re usually unaware of them, but you are often left with the associated negative emotions. NATs can lead to self-doubt, anger, anxiety and low mood. Becoming aware of them and learning to ignore or challenge them can have a hugely positive effect on your mental health and general wellbeing.
Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and learning to appreciate what you have rather than stressing about what you don’t have, is a highly effective way of becoming more resilient. A good daily exercise is consciously thinking of and feeling gratitude for three or more things (big or small) in your life that you normally take for granted. This is most effective when done first thing in the morning before you even get out of bed. Literally, count your blessings!
Becoming the observer of your own thoughts is a psychological concept very much linked to (if not taken from) the Eastern philosophies that have given us yoga, mindfulness and meditation – those practices that teach us to be grounded in the present moment and fully aware of our surroundings, our body and our ever-changing inner state, rather than being lost in rumination.
Ultimately, resilience is about learning to manage stress and regulate your emotions. Which isn’t the same as suppressing them - quite the opposite: a resilient person isn’t afraid of feeling the full force of overwhelming or negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, but is able to express them in constructive and healing ways.
Another powerful tool for connecting with and regulating our emotions is music. Because of its healing effects on the mind and body, music has been used in a variety of therapeutic settings for over a century. Research has identified several beneficial effects music can have on our physical and mental health, including easing pain, speeding recovery, improving sleep quality, lessening depression and managing stress and anxiety.
Of course, you don’t need to be a trained musician to receive the healing benefits. Singing, tapping along, or just listening and if possible moving to your all-time favourite tunes will do the job just fine – especially if done outdoors in nature.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, or anything in between, human beings are social creatures hardwired to connect with one another.
When we struggle on an emotional level, however, many of us have a tendency to self-isolate and reject any help from others. Perhaps we want to prove to ourselves that we can make it all alone. This 'stoical' behaviour is, in fact, self-defeating, as it only serves to make our pain worse.
Being selective with regard to whom you communicate with during times of crisis is wise; being altogether disconnected isn't. Reaching out to friends and/or professionals to share your anxieties can have an instantly soothing effect.
Human touch has powerful healing effects, mentally and physically. It can boost oxytocin levels in the brain, which has been proven to enhance self-esteem and general wellbeing.
If you live on your own during lockdown, you’re probably being deprived of human touch. But healing connections don’t just happen between humans. Pets also have therapeutic effects on our wellbeing. Studies have shown they can lower depression, anxiety and blood pressure by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels. If you don’t have a pet, there's no need to despair. A therapist friend informs me that holding a hot water bottle in your lap has similar neurological effects to holding a pet - and that if you buy a fluffy cover for the bottle, touching it apparently really feels like stroking a cat!
To recap: observe your thoughts, ground yourself in the here-and-now through your preferred activity (yoga, meditation, music, painting, etc), practise gratitude and above all, if you're struggling, reach out for help.
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