Building Blocks for Emotional Resilience

By: Jen McWaters, Psy.D. | December 10, 2016

Changes, stress, and obstacles seem to be an inevitable part of life. Part of effectively coping with these challenges is learning how to be flexible and adapt to the pain that enters our lives. Pain can take the form of many things, including intense emotion, loss, health problems, or relationship difficulties. As it is often described in the ACT framework (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), it is not the pain itself that causes long term problems (known as suffering) but how we respond to the pain. For example, losing a job is undeniably stressful, disruptive, and painful. When we try to manage these negative experiences and feelings through strategies such as substance use, isolating, worrying, or avoiding relationships, we increase our suffering. Now, we have both the initial pain (losing our job) and our suffering (the consequences from our management strategy of choice) to deal with.

We cannot avoid having pain; it is an inevitable part of life. However, we can strive to be able to respond more adaptively when pain enters our lives. By doing so, we reduce unnecessary suffering. This means that rather than avoid dealing with the stressor or conflict, we turn towards it. We face it. Engaging in therapy is one way to learn how to tolerate painful experiences in a more effective way. However, there are also other complementary strategies we can utilize to shore up and build our emotional resilience:

Self-Care and Physical Health

When we neglect taking care of ourselves emotionally and physically, we leave ourselves vulnerable. As we can probably all can attest to, gracefully handling a stressful day at work or school is nearly impossible when we have not been sleeping well or getting sufficient nutrition. Taking the time to regularly exercise, practice good sleep hygiene, being mindful of your food and alcohol intake, and engaging in rest and relaxation, are ways to improve your mood and build resilience.

Social Support

We all have a need to be connected to others and feel supported, particularly when we are going through hardships. Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with family, partners, and friends is another way that we can reduce our emotional vulnerability. Being a part of a community group, church or religious organization, or other special interest group is another way of fostering these connections. Therapy and other written resources can help us better communicate and help us strengthen our connection to others, so that we can receive emotional support when we need it most.

Emotional Health

Being mindful and aware of our emotions and thoughts can help us respond rather than react when we experience a stressor. It is difficult to know how to best respond to a situation when we are unaware of our feelings or thoughts. Engaging in therapy, practicing mindfulness, engaging in a religious or spiritual practice, and learning coping and communication skills, are all ways to increase our ability to respond skillfully to stress when painful experiences come our way.

Keep a value in mind

Finally, knowing what you value can help you find the motivation to act upon the above strategies and recommendations. For example, if you personally value honesty and intimacy in relationships, connecting to this value when you feel pulled to avoid conflict or isolate can help you find the determination to respond more adaptively in the moment (even when it is difficult to do so). Acting in accordance with our values, and who we want to be and stand for, moves us towards a more meaningful life. When we have a clear sense of purpose, it becomes easier to respond rather than react, thereby fostering greater emotional resilience and opportunities for personal growth.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”     

Helen Keller


Image: Anna & Michael on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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