Building Resilience Part II: How to Manage Your Emotions

June 7, 2016

resilience_1Being resilient means being able to face adversity and cope well enough that you recover relatively quickly. In Part 1 of our resilience discussion in the March newsletter, we reviewed the ways that your perspective can actually mitigate some negative effects of stress. Now in Part 2, we’ll discuss the research that tells us about how to decrease the stress you experience through prevention by managing your emotions with skill and being mindful of the positive things in life. In Part 3 next month, we will talk about the value of getting enough sleep, exercise, oxygen, and healthy food.

You can build your resiliency in the face of stress by having a solid awareness of and capacity for managing your emotions well. The first step in managing your emotions is simply having awareness of your emotional states and the connection between your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Being mindful – paying attention on purpose and without judgment – is increasingly shown in research to be a skill that when practiced can increase your ability to face challenges more calmly and effectively. Awareness of your feelings, thoughts, and actions, can also allow you to gain possible insight into how they relate to each other. For instance, if you become aware that negative feelings (like despair, hopelessness, anger) occur after a negative thought (“I can’t do anything right” or “I’ll never get through this”), this insight can lead you toward putting more effort into directing your thoughts in a more positive direction. By choosing to shift your focus onto something positive when you are thinking something negative, you can avoid spinning in a rumination loop that causes or intensifies negative feelings.

This kind of awareness can uncover what the famous psychologist Aaron Beck calls “cognitive errors of over-generalization.” These thoughts can be challenged (“Is it true that I can’t do anything right?”, “Is it likely that I’ll never get through this challenge?”). Being aware of these exaggerated thoughts and questioning them can help you open the door to considering alternative explanations which might be more optimistic or realistic (“I’m having trouble with this thing I’m doing now, but I can practice and get better”). You then have the opportunity to actively cope about real, concrete issues rather than being stuck in a negative, generalized cycle of worry.

Having an understanding of the natural arc of emotions can also help you cope (this is one of the strategies used in the well-researched transdiagnostic approach for managing negative emotions). All emotional states have an arc that intensifies, then abates – like a wave advancing, and then receding from the shore. When it comes to negative emotions like sadness, anger, loneliness, or fear, you may find that you would rather rid yourself of the pain rather than riding the negative wave of emotion. And it is not uncommon for people to develop unhealthy habits when they try to interrupt this natural ebb and flow. You may find yourself trying to avoid negative feelings by pretending the feeling isn’t happening, avoiding situations that might provoke the feeling, or isolating in the face of the feeling. Or you may find that you get stuck in negative or generalized thoughts or engage in actions that inadvertently accentuate the negative feelings, like yelling, substance use or overeating. All of these strategies put you at risk for making the negative emotion worse (because you feel bad about yourself or cause other people to be upset with you) or prolonging the state, because the underlying reason for the negative emotion never gets resolved.

Knowing that your emotional states all have a natural arc and increasing your attention to the ways that you process emotions can help you regain your equilibrium around emotional experiences. For instance, if you recognize a pattern of shutting down and isolating in the face of feelings like anger or hurt, then you can try new methods of responding like communicating your feelings or making an effort to identify more clearly what is happening that upsets you. By taking a more direct approach to your emotional state you open up a path for asking for what you need or making changes yourself to get more of what you need.

Managing negative feelings is important for resilience, but experiencing more positive emotions is important too! Having meaning in your life and multiple sources of pleasure builds resilience. One way to build up this part of your life is to think about your values and evaluate whether your behaviors and routine activities are in line with them. This can take courage, but aligning your core values with the time and energy you put toward activities in your life can help you shift things in a positive direction.

Attending to the positive aspects of your life is also associated with increased well-being. Research has found that adults feel better when they pay attention to the positive things their lives. Attending to the things you are grateful for is a skill to practice and get better at as is expressing gratitude to others. The human brain has evolved to be very attentive to the negative, as we need that function for survival (to sense danger and get away from it!). It takes more work to strengthen your ability to attend to positive details and develop the habit of gratefulness. The ability to stretch and prolong positive experiences and feelings is called “savoring” and the research coming from the positive psychology folks have found that it is a component of resilience. While platitudes like “stop and smell the roses” are overly simplistic, they exist for good reasons. It helps to attend to what’s going well in your life, even when it might not feel like a lot – perhaps especially then!

Speaking of the positives, accessing humor and laughter are great tools for reducing stress and improving your ability to stay resilient in the face of it. Take time to find the humor in a situation and fill your life with joy-inducing people and situations. It can be tempting to think that humor and laughter are not in your control – they just happen or they don’t. The reality is that you can put effort into accessing joyful or humor filled-moments. For example, when you are feeling down, you can watch a comedy instead of a tearjerker or horror film. These choices are under your control.

As you try to build your resilience, one of the most important things to remember is that you can exert control over your choices. Resiliency is not a personality trait that you either have or you don’t. It is buoyed and depleted by behaviors in your control. The way you think and talk yourself through problems/adversity and the awareness you cultivate about your emotional states and how you manage them, all stack up to make you more resilient. There are many things that cannot be controlled in life, but you can make a lot of choices that can move you in healthier, more resilient direction.

The first step? You can watch a video like this when you find yourself in a negative emotional state…it’s likely to shift things in a positive direction.

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