“Emotional resilience is the ability to manage and cope with stressors — big or small — and remain equanimous, or balanced,” according to Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, a psychotherapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t experience raw, painful emotions. You do. However, those emotions don’t wreak havoc on your life, she said.
Emotionally resilient people “roll with the punches.” They don’t let punches “knock them off their feet, and when they do get knocked off their feet, they get up with less difficulty, and more quickly.”
Emotional resilience is imperative. It’s hard to live your life when you’re constantly rocked by your emotions, she said. For instance, it sabotages your relationships. According to Van Dijk, people who are less emotionally resilient tend to have tumultuous relationships because their emotions spill over into their interactions.
Plus, less emotionally resilient people may take more time off from work, neglect responsibilities at home and isolate themselves to try to cope, she said.
Being at the mercy of your emotions is even bad for your health. You’re more likely to have issues like high blood pressure, chronic pain, lower immune system function and other stress-related illnesses, Van Dijk said.
So what does emotional resilience look like?
Here are two examples: A person was betrayed in their past relationship. But they remain open to future romantic relationships, and “might even develop insights about themselves [from that] relationship and about how to nurture a healthier relationship,” said Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It.
In another example, a person is passed over for a promotion. They’re disappointed, frustrated, and upset. Instead of drinking to numb themselves, calling a friend to badmouth the colleague who was promoted or doing something else they’ll regret, they discuss the issue with their supervisor, Van Dijk said.
“[P]erhaps [they] inquire as to why the decision was made the way it was, maybe express dissatisfaction with the outcome and strategize with the manager how they might be in a better position to get a promotion the next time an opportunity arises.”
In other words, emotionally resilient individuals don’t disregard their emotions or experiences; their emotions just don’t take over and overwhelm their decisions and lives.
Thankfully, emotional resilience can be learned. Here are four ways to develop it.
1. Cultivate compassionate self-awareness.
Compassionate self-awareness helps you better understand and process painful emotions and experiences. According to Becker-Phelps, “Compassionate self-awareness is a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion.” You can become aware of your sensations, thoughts, emotions and patterns, she said. Being self-compassionate means being “sensitive and caring toward your own distress and difficulties.”
For instance, when you’re distressed, Becker-Phelps suggested asking yourself these questions:
- What sensations am I feeling in my body?
- What are my thoughts about this experience?
- What emotions am I feeling?
- What patterns do I see myself replaying?
You also can explore how one domain, such as your thoughts, affects another domain, such as your bodily sensations. This process takes time and isn’t done in one sitting, she added.
2. Examine your beliefs about emotions.
The messages we received in childhood about emotions feed into our attitudes toward emotions today as adults, said Van Dijk, author of several books on bipolar disorder and emotions, including Calming the Emotional Storm.
For instance, maybe you learned that being afraid was a weakness, or that boys don’t cry or show their emotions. These messages can create judgment. And when you judge yourself for having certain emotions, you’re less likely to process them and do so healthfully.
That’s why it’s key to explore where your messages are coming from. Doing so decreases self-judgment, “because you understand yourself better; and you can now see that this is just a thought, not a fact,” she said.
Plus, when you judge yourself less, you’ll have fewer emotions to deal with. According to Van Dijk, we have primary and secondary emotions: Our initial reaction is our primary emotion. Our secondary emotion is triggered when we judge ourselves. For instance, you might get angry with yourself for feeling anxious, she said.
“[S]econdary emotions are painful emotions that only arise because of our self-judgments, so if we can reduce the judgments of our emotional experience, we reduce the emotional load), which makes you more resilient.”
3. Validate your emotions.
In order to effectively process your emotions and become resilient, it’s important to validate your emotions. Van Dijk used this analogy: Each of us has a dam inside, which emotions sit behind.
If your emotions are almost to the top of your dam because you don’t process them, it only takes a small situation for the dam to overflow. If the level of emotions is lower, your dam will be less likely to overflow in response to a new stressor. In other words, you’ll be less likely to “blow up in anger or burst into tears.”
Van Dijk suggested these steps for validating your emotions.
- Name the emotion without judging yourself. “In other words, instead of ‘Why am I still feeling anxious? This is stupid,’ you change the thought to ‘I’m feeling anxious.’”
- Give yourself permission to feel the feeling. For instance, you might say, “Anxiety is a natural human emotion. I’m allowed to feel this way. It’s OK that I feel anxious right now, even though I don’t like it.”
- Understand why you’re having this emotion. Here, you provide context for your emotional experience (though it’s not always possible). For instance, “I’m feeling anxious about being in this social situation because people used to bully me.”
Validation takes practice, because our beliefs about emotions can be so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize we’re judging ourselves, Van Dijk said.
4. Cultivate healthy habits.
It’s much easier to be emotionally resilient when you feel more balanced physically. According to Van Dijk, that includes getting restful sleep, eating nutrient-rich foods, moving your body, taking medication as prescribed and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
Again, being emotionally resilient doesn’t mean ignoring, glossing over or dismissing your emotions. It involves tuning into your thoughts and sensations, being self-compassionate, and validating how you’re feeling, all of which helps you cope healthfully with your emotions.