The Psychology of Emotional Resilience
Updated: Oct 9, 2019
There is a long-standing joke I have with friends stolen from another wise friend, who probably pinched it from another...
"Relax, none of us are getting out of here alive!"
These words always bring a smile to my face but like any one liner, their compound wisdom can only take us so far. Eventually, we will each have to unpack what it means to make this journey through life and ultimately exit it in one piece on our own.
Depressing thought, right? Life may seem like a game we can't win and any performance we offer is simply that. Performing in a bid to shield ourselves from the inevitable, which is that death is the ultimate act. Nobody makes it out of here alive, not even the great.
This is the kind of dark resilience aid workers are known for, at least in their circles. As a former aid worker, it's one that is hard to shake off. But it only really kicks in the closer you are to death. During everyday life, a different kind of resilience is needed and that is something that aid workers and others with a dark sense of humour can find very hard.
Discovering that different kind of resilience was something of a challenge for me when I left aid work. For years, I searched far and wide, with exercise and movement being my main area of interest. Could I build my resilience at the gym? Would strength training make both my mind and muscles stronger? Or would I find it swimming at the beach. Surely fresh air and the salty taste of open sea water could soothe and fortify my troubled soul?
Research studies show that exercise is a positive practice for building emotional resilience (Childs and De Wit, 2014). In particular, exercise encourages the development of two personality traits that can act as a protective buffer to the stresses and strains of life; self-efficacy, or the belief that you can do something, and self-esteem, or the extent to which you deem yourself of value (Deuster and Silverman, 2013).
The theory is that when we believe in and value ourselves, it becomes easier to self-manage in order to achieve a particular goal. Commitment, control, and motivation are key components here. Together with mental toughness, physical exercise can encourage the development of all of these. If you're still not convinced, try visiting your local Cross Fit box or take on an endurance challenge. You'll soon find out how resilient you are.
But is it always as simple as getting active?
The short answer is no. This is where your personal history and present circumstances matter very much. It may be that you're a professional or semi-professional athlete and you're still struggling with your emotional resilience. I'm by no means professional but I can relate to feeling challenged here.
At one point in my not so distant past, I was training 6-9 hours a week in stand-up and grappling martial arts and 3-4 hours at week in the pool and gym. I was training to compete and loved what I was doing. The problem was that my rather weary body wasn't quite as in love with this hard-hitting game.
Over time, training at this level without sufficient recovery had an effect on both my martial arts performance and professional life. I broke my shoulder competing in a competition. That I walked away with a gold medal meant very little compared to the months of physical pain I later endured. Lack of sleep affected my cognitive function and hey presto, it wasn't long before I was feeling emotional on the job.
So no, it isn't that simple. Physical activity is an essential component of building emotional resilience mechanisms but how much, how often, and when matters very much. Our resilience threshold also depends on our outlook on life. Do we mostly think that things will go right for us or are we so wound up expecting everything to go wrong? And when things go wrong, do we attribute the outcome to ourselves or to situations beyond ourselves?
Social psychologists refer to the latter as attribution theory. Heider (1958) pointed out decades ago that people tend to see things that aren't there in a bid to make sense of the world. My business partner (a smart psychologist) sometimes accuses me of filling in the blanks. "In the absence of information, Claire," he likes to say with a smile, "you are perfectly capable of making things up!"
Now my partner is an ultra-rational human being not easily swayed by emotion. Yet many of us struggle to filter out a myriad of emotional reactions to everyday life and to navigate the emotional turning points and disasters that are part of real life. For those of us who can be more easily triggered, cultivating a practice of perspective can help us to slow down and think more critically about what is happening. By giving ourselves space to breathe, we can hopefully also give ourselves more time to figure things out.
But what about once we've gained some perspective, what then?
After perspective comes Cultivating a positive outlook is also an essential ingredient in building emotional resilience. Seligman (1991), the founding father of Positive Psychology, writes about the concept of "learned optimism". He believes that optimism is a skill that can be learned. When we see a situation as permanent, personal, and pervasive (i.e. its effect seeps into other areas of our lives), we are demonstrating a pessimistic outlook.
Pessimistic outlooks or negative explanatory styles can be a personality trait. They can also be a learned behaviour as a result of having faced too many negative situations in our life or work. When we receive significant or multiple blows, particularly in succession, our resilience threshold can diminish rapidly and in its place, pessimism can take hold. While this may be our brain's way of trying to protect us, the problem here is that if we are to indulge in this negative state of mind, we are more likely to end up anxious and depressed. Hardly the resilient state we might be seeking.
Rather than make a habit of seeing things that go wrong as permanent, pervasive, and personal, we can try to cultivate through perspective a more positive state of mind. This isn't to absolve us of any responsibility or ownership in what we're facing but rather to see and eventually accept that nothing is ever solely down to us. Nobody is a ship unto their own, to use another wise one liner that needs further unpacking.
The good news is that we don't always have to rely on our minds to build our emotional resilience. In fact sometimes trying too hard to control our minds can backfire. Any patterns of obsession or perfection will ultimately fail in trying to still and calm a negative state of mind. Thankfully, what our psychology cannot do for us our physiology might be able to try.
With the right dose and timing of exercise and the right conditions (e.g. solo exercise, specific goal, social atmosphere, plenty of hydration and sound nutrition...etc.), we can learn to trust our bodies to let go and do the rest. Studies have shown that the physical practice of yoga, for example, can enhance emotional wellbeing and resilience to stress (Hartfiel et al. 2011). No thinking required, just being present to move stretch, and rest the body in a group setting while letting the teacher take the lead.
As a former yoga teacher, and someone who continues to practice yoga (to recover from the gym!), I would certainly advocate for some kind of moving and stretching practice. "Place the body in a position where it has no choice but to surrender and relax," one of my restorative yoga teacher trainers once told me. In other words, when all else fails stick your legs up a wall or lie down and place a bolster under your knees. Make yourself comfortable. Cover yourself in blankets. Dim the lights. Warm or cool the room. Create an environment where your body can do the talking and your mind can start to rest.
There are many ways to cultivate emotional resilience. Exercise and movement represent just one approach. Developing perspective and a positive outlook are others.
Resilience-building is a vast and dynamic field. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. A scientific study may point out what works in certain settings but in our own lives, we'll probably have to investigate much more to find out what really works. And we'll probably have to do that repeatedly throughout our lives as the nature of what challenges our resilience takes on new shapes and forms.
Childs, E., de Wit, H. (2014). 'Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults.' Frontiers in Physiology, 5:161.
Deuster, P.A., Silverman, M.N. (2013). 'Physical fitness: A pathway to health and resilience.' The United States Medical Department Journal, October - December 2013.
Hartfiel, N., Havenhand, J., Khalsa, S.B., Clarke, G., Krayer, A. (2011). 'The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace.' Scand J Work Environ Health, 37: 1.
Seligman, M. (1991). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and life. Nicholas Brealey Publishing: USA.
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