Emotional Resilience: What Makes the Difference Between Surviving & Thriving?

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What makes the difference between people who get knocked down by life and stay down, and those who get back up?

In his book, The Resiliency Advantage, Al Siebert wrote that “highly resilient people are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly, and thrive in constant change. Most important, they expect to bounce back and feel confident that they will. They have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck.”

This idea of being flexible and adapting follows the earlier pieces in this series on physical and mental resilience, but how do we maintain this flexibility with our emotions? While defining the characteristics of highly resilient people is helpful, what habits can we cultivate to strengthen our ability to respond to the difficult parts of life?

We cannot change our innate personalities (nor would it be a healthy choice to do so). We cannot change how we were parented. We also cannot choose many of the circumstances we will encounter in our lives. In light of those things we cannot change, it makes sense that we would do everything in our power to choose habits that will serve to strengthen our ability to bounce back in difficult times.

The following habits can make the difference between getting up in the morning to face the day when life gets hard, and wanting to crawl back under the covers:

1. Choose connection. Even though we are wired to connect with each other, it’s often hardest when we are in pain. For those of us who tend to be introverted, it can be even more difficult. Like all of the physical and mental resilience factors, this is a habit that we can cultivate; like building muscle, it gets stronger the more we do it. We don’t have to become extroverted social butterflies to reap these benefits. Reaching out to a single friend or family member on a regular basis to touch in about how things are going is sufficient.

In our social media saturated world, it might seem like this isn’t an area that needs work, but consider how short and often superficial these interactions can be. Making the effort to have a genuine connection with a few friends or family members on a regular basis can help create that habit, so that when things are hard, it’s already second nature to reach out instead of collapsing inward. It will also help in difficult times, because those you are connected with will be in the habit of checking in with you and may notice you’ve withdrawn.

2. Be present. Our brains have an area called the “default mode network.” We are in this mode when we are distractedly thinking about the future, or re-hashing a conversation we had yesterday. While entering into this distracted default mode may sometimes be helpful for creative inspiration, too much time functioning at this default mode level keeps us from being fully present and engaged with what’s going on. Constantly being in this state of self-referential examination can make us unhappy—if not neurotic! One simple activity that can help us find balance here is developing a meditation practice. When we practice stilling our minds and being present, we shift from default mode and experience greater focus, even when not meditating.

3. Be positive. This doesn’t mean becoming an idealistic Pollyanna, or just wishing your troubles away. What it does mean, is choosing to look for the good in life and cultivating gratitude. Many studies indicate that those with a spiritual practice reap physical and emotional benefits from having faith. This doesn’t mean that you need to start going to your church or synagogue in order to be emotionally resilient, but connecting with others and a higher power is a huge boost for many people. For those who don’t feel drawn toward a particular spiritual path, belief in the goodness of humankind and having hope may have similar effects. Einstein may have said it best, “The single most important decision any of us will ever to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly.”

4. Give back. The choice to give back and be of benefit to others and the world strengthens us as well. Recent research shows that even practicing small acts of kindness raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the body as well as boosting the immune system. As with number one on this list, when we feel connected to the greater whole of humanity, we strengthen our own ability to respond to life with resilience.

On a final note, another piece of emotional resilience is being gentle to ourselves.

Being emotionally resilient doesn’t mean that we keep our chins up and paste on a smile when we feel rotten. It’s okay not to feel okay. Choosing these habits that help keep us connected can make the difference between having a “not okay” day and a “not okay” year. If we can cultivate habits that create resilience during low stress times, we will have a greater chance of accessing them when things are difficult.

 

Photo credit: Flickr / Hamner_Fotos

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Comments

  1. Alan Rojas says:

    Quick thing:
    You CAN change your personality. That’s what therapy is for.

    Source: I trained in psychotherapy.

    • Kate Bartolotta says:

      Perhaps you are referring to people dealing with personality disorders? It would concern me if a therapist was advising someone to change their personality, but changing one’s comping mechanisms and habits, or dealing with a disorder, yes. I’m using “personality” here to refer a person’s innate personality traits or sense of self, and not disordered behavior.

      • Alan Rojas says:

        No. I’ll make my statement clear. I mean that anyone, willing to change a part in themselves, no longer working in their best interest, can, through therapy.
        Therapy is not solely available for people with a personality disorder. Neurotics, aka regular folks, may also go to therapy. Any part of ourselves/traits/sense of self — either our thinking, feeling or acting– is indeed part of our personality and is available for update, heal, change if it no longer works for the client AND that’s what s/he wants to change.
        This is indeed my opinion and it’s not an advise for people to change: it’s a statement on the possibility of change for anyone willing to change so as to live the life they want, in a convenient ethical manner.

        • Kate Bartolotta says:

          Yes, I would agree that therapy is useful for anyone and most everyone. I consult with and refer to several therapists. I think this may be just a difference of semantics. I would generally encourage people to seek out a therapist who was focused on a balanced approach that included both self-acceptance and assistance in making any changes necessary to enjoy life more fully. If there were a therapist offering a personality or self overhaul (i.e. a gentle tempered man trying to be more alpha, or similar personality changes because a different type of personality is perceived as more valuable than one’s innate personality) I would have a hard time recommending that type of work.

          But this is pretty far afield from the original topic, anyhow!

          Thanks for commenting!

        • There’s a difference between personality, which is changeable, and temperament, which is unchangeable(though can still be nurtured, which is different from changing).

          http://www.differencebetween.net/language/words-language/difference-between-temperament-and-personality/

  2. So glad to have found this article. As a therapist and parent coach, I talk to folks a lot about resiliency. One of the best things I learned on the subject came from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. His theory on resiliency is that when we create meaning out of our suffering, we become resiliency. If we can’t create meaning out of a difficult time, we fail to flourish.

    • Thanks, Heather! I think this is so important especially around the holidays. It’s a happy time for many people, but also a peak time for depression. We need to reach out to each other.

  3. Well written – and so relevant for today’s society :)

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