Your emotional resilience is a measure of your adaptability in the face of negative situations. In other words, your ability to bounce back, or roll with the punches as you face challenging circumstances.
And If you’ve been worrying about how to cope with all the events unfolding in the world, whether it’s COVID, climate change, or your colleague being mean, you’re not alone…it can be hard to face the world sometimes.
As an Emotional Intelligence coach, a gardener, and someone who is often overwhelmed by their own emotions, I want to share with you some of my own coping strategies for increasing your emotional resilience.
1. Focus on the now
You’ve probably heard spiritual gurus talking about “living in the moment” a lot, but perhaps you dismissed it or told yourself “oh, that’s not for me – I can’t switch off my brain”.
I promise you, my brain is a non-stop jukebox of songs on loop, random memories and future scenarios being played out in various ways, and internal chatter.
And yet, I’ve implemented little slices of what I’m about to talk about into my life over the years, and just like with any practice – it gets easier every time.
So, what does it mean to focus purely on the moment?
Well – it doesn’t mean we don’t make plans or prepare for the future.
It just means we don’t spend all of our time there… that we don’t miss out on the things that are actually happening right now because we’re too busy thinking about something else.
This means that we don’t lose emotional energy on worrying about all the things that might happen, and instead focus on what is true right now. What do you see, smell, and hear around you right now? What is true in this moment?
Being present in the moment doesn’t mean we let our responsibilities fall by the wayside, or that we ignore problems. It can make us better able to deal with problems when they strike.
Tell me – if you suddenly find out that you might lose your job, which response is going to have a better outcome:
a) Stopping and noticing how you feel in your body, taking a few deep breaths, focusing on everything that is true right now – where you are, how you feel, your current level of safety?
Then, when you feel calmer, starting to think about the options that are available to you.
b) Thinking “oh my god I’m going to lose my job, I’ll be homeless, what about the kids, and the economy is going to shit anyway and I probably won’t be able to get another job”, acting based on the surge of adrenaline going through your body and saying something passive-aggressive to your boss, then snapping at the first person who tries to comfort you because you feel like they’re patronising you.
I think I know which one I would choose!
2. Be adaptable
When talking about resilience or mindfulness, there is a Japanese adage that asks: which is stronger, an oak tree or a reed of bamboo?
We tend to associate the oak tree with being strong and rooted in place. However, when a storm comes, the oak tree breaks and scatters, while the bamboo reed bends and folds to the ground.
Once the storm has passed, the bamboo stands right back up again, seemingly undamaged.
When we try to ‘stand strong’ or ‘keep calm and carry on’, we are like that stubborn oak tree, refusing to be swayed by the storm – but the storm is coming, regardless of how much you resist.
That storm may be things happening in the world or a storm brewing inside you.
The bamboo reed shows us that through letting our emotions and thoughts pass through us – in a mindful way, where we don’t judge them or follow them deeper but just let them come and ‘do their thing’ – we are more likely to be able to bounce back afterwards.
For me, this is the very core of being resilient – not standing ‘strong’ and stubbornly refusing to let the world change me, but being flexible and adaptable to change.
This is hard if you are afraid of losing control and of uncertainty, or if you have a strict five-year plan mapped out for your life.
Think about a difficult time in your life – it could be a big, disruptive change or a small upset, it doesn’t matter. Write down exactly how you felt when it happened…and then what you did to resolve or move past it.
Try to recall what strengths and skills you used.
If you were to go back in time and tell yourself from 10 years ago what life would look like right now, would you have believed you?
You have already shifted, changed and adapted so much – and you will be able to do it again. Acknowledge the adaptability you have shown so far, and know that you will be able to do it again, if you need to.
3. Develop your emotional literacy
It is well-known that emotional intelligence can help to mitigate stress and boost emotional resilience as discussed in Science Direct – but what exactly does that mean?
Sometimes, it can be easy to get annoyed with ourselves for feeling too much, or not having ‘rational’ feelings.
Have you ever found yourself thinking “Why am I so upset about this? Why am I so angry? Wouldn’t anybody else have just carried on with their lives?”
By learning to recognise what you’re feeling and understanding why you might be feeling it, you can boost compassion towards yourself as well as becoming more emotionally intelligent.
For example, when we are afraid, our blood focuses into our legs, preparing us to run – leaving our face feeling as if it’s just gone white.
We might also feel frozen on the spot – giving us a moment to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. The entire body goes onto general alert, making it edgy and ready to react quickly to any danger, and our visual focus narrows.
Just understanding that this is an evolutionary response to danger can help us not to feel as confused or overwhelmed by our own reactions.
According to Lisa Feldman-Barrett in How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, developing our “emotional granularity” is one of the keys to being able to manage our emotions.
Emotional granularity is a similar concept to emotional literacy – being able to name, distinguish, and tease apart one emotion from another.
For example, are you feeling “bad”, or are you feeling angry, furious, irritated, envious, annoyed, offended, betrayed, or disappointed?
The more we are able to recognise how different emotions feel in our bodies, the more we can start to step in and catch ourselves before we spiral into a mood that takes control over us.
Try to write a list of situations that trigger certain emotions for you:
For example, when _____, I feel _____. This can be hard to do off the top of your head, but the next time you feel angry, upset, or really happy, try to pinpoint what it was that caused the change.
Of course, emotional resilience doesn’t mean avoiding “bad feelings” – in fact, recognizing the importance and wisdom of our more unpleasant emotions is a key part of building emotional resilience.
We are often told in modern society that we should expect to live in an almost constant state of bliss – think “good vibes only” Instagram posts – and that any aberration from that state should be pathologized.
If we fear “negative” emotions, then we will fear any situation that could trigger those emotions – meaning that we are less resilient.
On the other hand, when you recognize that anger and fear can serve very important functions and give you vital information about how you’re doing and what is important for you, then those situations may not seem so frightening.
4. Practice Detachment and boost your emotional resilience
Yes, I’m talking about detachment in the Buddhist sense. Our expectations and ideas for how things should be often stop us from experiencing the present moment as it is.
For example, we might fixate on how uncomfortable we feel because we’re fixated on how we should be feeling right now.
Or we fail to enjoy time with a friend because we’re thinking about how we should have heard back from a different friend, or how you can’t enjoy your present life because it should be so much better.
In many societies it is accepted that fortune and luck, even happiness, come and go.
It’s a cycle.
Unfortunately, Western society has somehow convinced us that happiness is a linear journey – from A to B.
That we must spend our lives climbing from the bottom of the ladder to the top, and that if we somehow fall, we will stay down there forever and our lives will be “ruined”.
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t situations that could make us feel that our lives were ruined – perhaps for a very long time.
But I want to move away from the absolute worst-case scenarios, and focus more on a situation like: losing your job, losing all your money, or perhaps having to move away somewhere new.
If you attach to the “should” – “I should have saved more by this age”, “I should have X position within my field”, “Things should be easy” then of course you’re going to be disappointed.
If you attach to the idea of your life as a careful journey up a ladder, a journey in which you carefully acquire more and more money, possessions and experience, then a set-back will of course feel disastrous.
Philosopher Alan Watts argued that we had missed the point by thinking of life as a journey from A to B – that this was like judging a song based on the final note! (Check out a short 3 minute extract from one of his talks at the end of this article).
How does it feel to think of life as a dance, a piece of music, rather than as a journey from A to B?
For me, thinking of it this way reminds me of how fleeting everything can be.
And yes, this can be hard to swallow if you really love the way things are right now or feel very attached to the idea of change. But it can also give a lot of hope – it can remind us that even when things seem bad, the wheel can turn again.
And it’s a powerful tool for boosting your resilience.
In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a practice known as making sand mandalas. Using dyed, dense sand, Buddhist monks spend several weeks building these intricate, beautiful geometrical patterns – if you don’t know what a mandala looks like, I suggest you spend a few minutes looking at how pretty they are with a quick image search!
Once the Buddhist monks have created this masterpiece, do you know what they do with it?
They destroy it.
The destruction of the sand mandala is ceremonial.
But why do they do this!? To remind themselves of the transient nature of life, and perhaps to let go of attachment to things that one has created and built.
Try to create a “sand mandala”. No sand or art skills are necessary. Spend some time creating something – a drawing, a painting, a poem, a piece of writing – anything that takes you a while to create and you feel pretty proud of (this part is important). And then… you’re going to destroy it.
It’s all in the interest of building resilience, of detaching from our egos and our narratives, of recognising the temporary essence of nature, fortune, and life.
If you’re a creative who’s used to throwing away hundreds of ‘first drafts’, this may be easy for you. That’s why I said to try making it something you feel proud of – it’s easy to destroy to something you hate.
The more you practice letting go of the things you’ve built, the more you can come to see life as a dance rather than a climb from A to B, a struggle in which we must acquire as much as possible and then spend all our energy guarding it.
Of course, these are just a FEW of the ways to boost emotional resilience and that are possible, but hopefully these few steps will help you to trust in your own ability to handle whatever life throws your way.
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What life elements are causing you to need to boost your emotional resilience? Do you have tips that help you live that way right now? If not, what’s one action you can take now to change that?
Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.