Originally published for Real Simple by Brittany Loggins
You can learn a lot about people by seeing how they react to stressful, sad or even traumatic situations. Do they panic or get angry? Do they shut down? It turns out, our ability to cope with adversity is called emotional resilience, and the good news is, if you’re intentional, it’s a trait you can build and improve over time.
We spoke with Stephanie Parmely, Ph.D., a behavioral health psychologist with Dignity Health, to find out why some people are more emotionally resilient than others, and how emotional resilience can be a helpful quality to build on throughout your life and experiences.
What is emotional resilience?
To put it simply, emotional resilience is the ability to cope with something in a healthy and constructive way. “It’s not an outcome, but rather a series of attitudinal and behavioral choices for dealing with trauma, tragedy or other significant life stress,” Parmely says.
While people can become more emotionally resilient through experiences later in life, Parmely specifies that building emotional resilience tends to start when we’re children. That’s right, all those times your parents let you figure something out instead of giving you the answers right away actually paid off. That said, emotional resilience can also be strengthened later in life by facing different struggles and learning from each of them.
Parmely gives the example of scientists who experienced career setbacks to show how emotional resilience can play a large factor in career success. “People who practice habits that increase resilience are more likely to thrive when faced with adversity,” she says. “For example, in a study of young scientists, those who experienced a serious set-back early in their career went on to have greater success than those who didn’t.”
How emotional resilience helps in everyday life.
The quality of emotional resilience can keep you from panicking during periods of uncertainty, and it can help people with anxiety by slowly building up a tolerance for discomfort. For example: “It would be disrespectful and insensitive to say that people can gain something from the death of a loved one,” Parmely says. “However, if you can maybe look at how the death of one of your loved ones may help you understand and support someone else who is grieving, that’s resilient thinking.”
Being emotionally resilient doesn’t mean being emotionally void; instead it’s a healthier, more mature and more optimistic approach to coping with stress, tragedy or setbacks. It’s about having a higher tolerance for negative circumstances and a smoother time managing emotions and reactions. Once you have grieved or vented or taken a pause: Can you eventually try to see the silver lining, or to reframe your perspective, even through a tragic or life-altering event? It’s a tall order, but it is possible to strengthen these emotional muscles.
Ultimately, building up emotional resilience is the practice of learning to find hope in tough situations. “Emotional resilience is a skill that involves optimism and hope that there’s something to gain from a difficulty,” says Parmely. “It’s the hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even though we may not see it when we’re going through it.”
How to build emotional resilience.
Building emotional resilience requires you to be intentional in both your thought patterns and actions. What at first will feel forced or challenging will become mental health habits you take with you through the rest of your life.
Cultivate optimism. Specifically, improving your emotional resilience requires you to be a more optimistic thinker. “We can practice optimism every day by choosing to see challenges as temporary instead of permanent, reframing our mistakes as behavioral choices versus unchangeable personal traits and knowing our focus of control is internal, not external,” Parmely says. Empower yourself to change what you can, and accept what is out of your control, for instance. She encourages people to rethink how they reflect on their mistakes. Instead of letting the negativity of the experience replay in an exhausting loop in your mind, think instead how the story can help others who’ve perhaps experienced something similar.
Try mindfulness meditation to fire up the prefrontal cortex. “Working on behaviors that help regulate our emotions can increase wiser thinking,” says Parmely. “Practicing mindful meditation strengthens the frontal lobe and reduces the ‘fight, flight and freeze’ response in the emotional brain.” She goes on to explain that mindful meditation helps people learn to focus on the present moment, which makes it easier to accept negative, positive and neutral feelings. This, she explains, helps build tolerance and resilience.
Work up a sweat. In addition to meditation, Parmely suggests exercise that increases your variable heart rate—like running or yoga. “This can increase our body’s ability to deal with stress through regulating our heart rate,” she says. (Research actually suggests that doing regular meditation and aerobic exercise can reduce symptoms of depression by up to 40%.)
Reflect in healthy doses. While it’s always helpful to reflect on personal triumphs and moments of adversity through journaling, Parmely suggests giving your experience “enough time and space from the event and the recovery before going back.” Basically, don’t keep re-reading your journal entry about a bad event.
Get inspired by others. Finally, Parmely says it’s also helpful to look to others. “It helps to read stories of other people who have overcome significant challenges,” she says. “Biographies abound of people who’ve faced challenges and overcome them.” Whether you’re working through an injury recovery, struggling with depression, mourning a lost loved one or hitting speed bumps in your career, there’s an inspiring and helpful story out there from someone else who’s been through it and bounced back (just like you will).