How To Build Emotional Resilience With These 7 Resilience Exercises
How do you handle life's difficulties? Are you well known for serenely tackling stress, or do you find it hard to avoid losing your cool when things get complicated? If you struggle to regulate and manage your emotions, frequently experience periods of despair or feel driven to avoid conflict like the plague, you're probably not very emotionally resilient. However, the good news is that emotional resilience can be actively cultivated and maintained! You just need to know how to do it. Plus, you can discover how to overcome the most common roadblocks.
Some people have emotional resilience in early childhood and then struggle to retain it in adulthood, while others have been raised in a way that explicitly or implicitly minimizes the importance of self-care. Regardless of whether you sit on that spectrum, this guide will help you understand how to build emotional resilience in the present, outlining concrete techniques that you can use in your daily life.
What Is Emotional Resilience?
To give it the simplest definition, emotional resilience describes how capable you are to adapt and respond to stressful developments in your life. When you're emotionally resilient, you are skilled at overcoming adversity without having to deal with many long-term negative effects on your mental health. If you're less emotionally resilient, change is probably very difficult for you and it can take you a long time to move past a challenging or distressing experience.
It's also worth noting that your emotional resilience can differ between different spheres of your life. So, you may be very emotionally resilient in your professional life, but find anger or sadness easily escalating in your home life.
Nature and nurture both play a role in determining how emotionally resilient you are. In other words, you may simply be born with certain capacities that dispose you to competently manage stress, but past traumas and early life experiences can also have an impact. Research on the development of resilience shows that resilience in the face of minor stresses correlates with resilience in the face of major crises. So, if you work on developing it in everyday life, it's sure to benefit you in the longer term.
10 Traits Of Emotional Resilience
As noted above, emotional resilience may look different depending on the context. However, there are certain traits that most resilient people exhibit. Think of this list as a kind of emotional resilience test; the more of these traits you recognize in yourself, the more emotionally resilient you’re likely to be.
- Positivity. You see the good in most people and situations, and you believe in your own talents and strengths. Plus, you know that you have the capacity to make it through tough times.
- Self-awareness. You're able to accurately identify your emotions and understand their causes. In addition, you can readily empathize with other people by using the same skill set.
- Appropriate reliance on others. You reach out for help when you need it and have a close network of people you can trust to support you.
- Realism. You have an accurate perspective on what you can achieve and where your talents lie, neither over or underestimating what you can do.
- Keenness to learn. You recognize setbacks and mistakes as an opportunity to learn; you find useful meaning in your own struggles.
- Determination. You set a goal and keep working to achieve it, not only dreaming and planning but actively orienting yourself towards constant, productive action.
- Spirituality. While you don't need to be overtly religious, having some kind of developed spirituality (e.g. through meditation) correlates with resilience.
- Belief in autonomy. You recognize that you are in control of your own life and development, rather than blaming or crediting other people for your situation.
- Humor. You're able to laugh at yourself and things that happen in your life, rather than take everything deathly seriously all the time.
- Authenticity. You see (appropriate) vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness, sharing your true self with those around you.
7 Emotional Resilience Exercises
As mentioned at the outset, emotional resilience isn't fixed. This means that if you want to improve your ability to cope with your emotions and respond productively to adversity, this is entirely possible. Each of the following seven exercises will help you learn how to develop emotional resilience, offering some concrete examples of how the techniques might best be used in practice.
As you read through them, think about where and when you might integrate these new habits into your life. While not all of them may be suitable for you, regularly practicing even just a few can make a long-term difference to how emotionally resilient you are.
1. Build Your Support System
When you’re figuring out how to build resilience, it’s vital to realize that you can’t do this alone. Although emotional resilience has a lot to do with inner strength and autonomy, it is also about learning that being at your best means having a strong support network beneath you.
You may have been taught to view reaching out as a sign of weakness. However, it is actually a sign of knowing your own limitations and understand the value of human connection.
Your support system will likely include good friends and trusted family members, as well as perhaps certain colleagues you particularly trust. On the other hand, think beyond these people as well. For example, to the role that a therapist could play in your life, even when you're not having an active crisis. Many people have at least occasional psychotherapy appointments, which provide a useful forum for reflecting on decisions and increasing your self-knowledge.
2. Confront Your Fears
Fears hold a lot of power when we hide from them, so facing them can work wonders for your emotional well-being. You might agree that this sounds good in the abstract, but how should you approach it at a practical level?
One approach that can be useful involves using meditation to deal with difficult emotions. There are two parts to this exercise, and both can help to empower you against fear.
Firstly, know the bodily cues that indicate fear. For example, you likely feel your heart pounding, and may start sweating. When this happens, get into the habit of deliberately slowing the pace of your body. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply, as many times as it takes to slow your heart.
Secondly, say to yourself “I am afraid of _____”. This encourages you to take a more objective perspective. After you do this, repeat a positive affirmation like “May I be relaxed, safe and free from fear”.
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3. Learn To Be Assertive And Create Change
A lack of emotional resilience often goes alongside a certain passivity. In other words, you probably often find yourself going along with other people's preferences, and may see yourself at the mercy of life (rather than in control of it). To become emotionally resilient, then, you need to develop assertiveness skills and use those to propel yourself forward towards your goals.
It's important to draw a distinction between aggressiveness and assertiveness. The former is loud, demanding and entitled. The latter is calm, clear and confident. For example, if you're unhappy with something someone has done at work, the aggressive person might say “I've told you a hundred times that I won't put up with this! Get on with it!” while the assertive person might say “I need to talk to you about how we can work together more effectively”. When you notice yourself being passive, ask yourself how you might rephrase this in order to be assertive.
4. Evaluate Your Thoughts
Developing emotional resilience requires steadily working on self-reflection as well. As discussed above, sometimes this is best done with the help of a therapist, or even an attentive friend. However, it can often be just as effective to implement a daily self-reflective practice such as keeping a journal. The point here is to be mindful of your own thoughts; how you think about yourself and your life, what you're feeling, and the way you speak to yourself.
Over time, you should begin to notice patterns that indicate areas for improvement. In particular, look out for a tendency to avoid responsibility for things going wrong in life, and notice whether there's a tendency to hide vulnerable emotions (like sadness) under “bigger”, more defensive emotions (like anger). Each day, challenge yourself to think of something useful that you learned. This will reinforce the idea that even setbacks can help your life improve.
5. Control Your Destiny
When you're emotionally resilient, you're able to accept (and enjoy) the fact that you're in the driver's seat when it comes to your own life. While you can't change the world around you or how the people in it behave, you have full power over how you respond to your situation and exercising this power can play a massive role in shaping your future.
If you struggle to accept personal responsibility and accountability, how do you develop this willingness to view yourself as being in control? One easy but effective tip is to say “I have a choice” every time you encounter a setback or challenge. Identify what your choices are (even if they're limited by your context), and then weigh them against each other. When you've decided which path to take, pursue it with full conviction and accept that the outcome is largely your responsibility. You may be surprised by how freeing this mentality can be.
6. Mindfulness Exercises
General mindfulness exercises can also function as emotional resilience exercises. We talked about one such exercise above when we explored a technique for targeting fear. Body scanning meditations can also be especially helpful if you struggle to identify and sit with your own emotions.
All you need to do is spend 5-10 minutes breathing deeply and slowly, moving your attention from head to toe. As you progress, notice what you feel, both emotionally and physically. Practice not judging it, but simply observing it. In time, this emphasizes that whatever you feel is okay, and helps you to regulate your responses to strong emotions.
You can also practice mindfulness exercises that focus specifically on the idea of emotional resilience. For example, imagine your body filling up with warm, liquid gold that melts all of your stress away. Repeatedly returning to this imagery can help you to feel more confident and that you have a lot of control over how you respond to life.
7. Regularly Forgive Yourself, And Move On
Finally, a lack of emotional resilience often occurs when you hold onto grudges and regret. This type of mentality promotes anxiety, self-loathing and feelings of helplessness.
In contrast, deliberately forgiving yourself for the past gives you permission to move forward. Try to get into the habit of doing the following any time you're disappointed with yourself. First, identify what you're disappointed in, and why. Next, ask yourself how much responsibility you bear for the outcome. With respect to what you are responsible for, ask yourself what you'd do differently next time. Then, give yourself forgiveness, and be aware that you are progressing with valuable learning that makes your disappointments worthwhile. If it feels helpful, log what you’ve learned.
Regularly forgiving yourself gives you a sense of an emotionally clean slate, making it easier to cope with new stresses and diminishing fear of the unknown. In time, self-compassion should become second nature.