Emotional Resilience

Avril Ivory (M.Psych.Sc.M.PSI)

I have recently been lecturing on the topic of emotional resilience. This topic now seems to be more important than ever. I find myself working daily to increase my own resilience. Fortunately resilience is something we can learn to develop rather than an innate quality. It helps us to deal with adversity, trauma and stress. I have been looking at all the literature and have chosen 10 key ways of increasing Resilience. I hope you will find them valuable

Balance your physiology

How we respond to everything depends on our nervous system. There are two parts to the nervous system, fight or flight (sympathetic branch) or rest and digest (parasympathetic). In our lives we often spend too much time in the fight or flight mode which lowers our resilience because we are out of balance. Many of us go around like this for years, habituated to a higher level of stress, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol without realising it. We feel wound up and agitated or overwhelmed. We can learn to spend more time in the parasympathetic branch. Exercise, prayer, relaxation exercises, meditation, laughter, deep breathing, humming, singing, chanting all calm our nervous system. Clients often present in clinic very stressed and the first approach we use is to change the breathing. Often our breath is shallow, maybe 10 breaths per minute, bringing this back to 6 long deep breaths per minute resets our system. 7/11 breathing, inhaling through the nose for 7 seconds and exhaling for 11 seconds (do 10 rounds at a time) is a great way to start a rebalancing. Follow this up with an exercise or yoga routine which will start to reset the system.

Change your thinking

We have 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Most of these thoughts are so fast that we don’t catch them. Research indicates that typically the ratio of negative to positive thoughts in the human brain is 5:1. We are attuned to thinking negatively, our first thoughts in many situations are negative ones, we call these NAT’s, negative automatic thoughts. These thoughts are often fleeting and often irrational without evidence to support them. We can learn to catch our thoughts and replace them with thoughts that are rational and more positive. The first task it to be aware of our thoughts. Take time every evening to sit down and remembering back through your day, choose 3 or 4 times where you may have felt anxious, stressed, overwhelmed. Remember back to what thoughts may have preceded those feelings, were they rational, was their evidence for them, if you had that moment again could you have thought differently about that situation and if you had thought differently would you have felt differently? This is a lovely discipline to follow.

Get more Sleep: The cornerstones of healthy habits are Good sleep, good food and good exercise. 65% of us are carrying a chronic sleep deficit, accustomed to not getting the required 8 hours sleep per night (and longer for teenagers). Sleep fortifies us, it links up our new daily experiences with previous learning to help us make sense of our experiences, this process is particularly important for teenagers. Each hour of sleep lost is associated with a 38% increase in the risk of feeling sad. Insufficient sleep affects activity in the pre- frontal cortex and thus decreases our emotional balance and resilience levels. Hunter gatherer societies used to go to sleep about 3 hours after sunset and wake not long after sunrise. This kind of pattern allows us to follow natural circadian rhythms. Many of us are exposed to blue light at night (phones, kindles, computors), this interferes with the production of melatonin in the brain and suppresses good sleep. The ideal is to start decreasing blue light after 8 pm, confine tech usage to only the necessary from 9 pm, go to bed at 10:30 pm and wake up 8 to 10 hours later. Good sleep where we have successfully rotated through the various stages increases our capacity to cope.

Eat Good food: As we are essentially biochemical creatures, optimising our biochemistry by eating a nutrient dense, high life-force balanced diet has a huge effect on psychological well-being and resilience. I ask all my clients to lower the levels of processed and high sugar foods in their diet at times when resilience is important. I also ask all my clients to take a good multivitamin/multimineral as well as an Omega 3 source and a probiotic. Many of our neurotransmitters are synthesised from good fat so we have happier chemicals in the brain if we increase omega 3. Sources include flaxseed, walnuts and oily fish or a supplement. For many of us the gut microbiome is out of balance due to stress, high sugar in the diet, antibiotics or steroids. Probiotic sources include kefir, live yoghurt and sauerkraut. They have a huge influence on our vagal tone hence they help calm our nervous systems. Vitamin D is the most prevalent deficiency in Ireland at the moment, it influences mood (and immunity) so if i feel a client is rundown in any way i recommend Vitamin D. Biocare make a good Vitamin D.

Try and Exercise whatever way possible: At present we are limited in the exercise we can take but normally I ask people to get a minimum of 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week as well as some resistance training (just lifting light weights) and some stretching or toning (can be pilates or a few yoga stretches). The benefits of exercise on balancing our chemistry are huge. It also allows us move stagnant energy and held in emotion. People are being very inventive about this at the current time, it could be chair yoga or laps of the garden or an online work out.

Increase Self-compassion

The key to growing any psychological resource is to have repeated experiences of it that get turned into lasting change in neural structure or function. When we have a strong inner critic that constantly pulls us up on what we have done and how we are, we can trigger activity in the Amygdala which is the fear part of the brain. This floods us with anxiety. When we are compassionate with ourselves and applaud even our smallest gains and internalise an inner voice that is warm and encouraging (takes practise!) we release dopamine which is a happy chemical.

Practise Gratitude:

When we focus not on lack but on abundance and give thanks for even the smallest things, we actually change our brains and develop a whole new awareness. When we focus not on the mayhem and loss around us but on a beautiful sunrise, a bank of daffodils, a call from an old friend, this increases our happiness and well-being and reduces depression. Grateful people sleep better, they also do less social comparison which thus increases self-esteem. Resilient people adopt an attitude of gratitude.

Embrace challenge:

Life has never been so full of challenges. Resilient people tend to see these as opportunities for growth. They accept the process of moving out of their comfort zone and into their stretch zone, this is the stretch zone for so many of us. We can use this to grow, to push through our fears. This graph describes it well.

Control what you can

Resilient people distinguish between what is in their control and what is not, they then put their energies into what they can control. They don’t waste time and energy on things outside their control.

Connect with the self in a deeper way

Resilient people tend to have some form of connecting with the self beyond the busy highway of thoughts the day brings. Research for example on centenarians around the world shows that our oldest living inhabitants tend to have transcendental beliefs or beliefs in something higher so they regularly pray or meditate. (See The Blue Zones). Research shows that practices such as mindfulness and meditation actually change the neural pathways in the brain. Just as research shows that the brains of London taxi drivers show thickening in the area of the brain related to navigational skills, so too do the brains of meditators show thickening in the area related to wellbeing. If someone is serious about developing resilience and developing new neural pathways in the brain,  I recommend an excellent program, free from the University of Massachusetts, called Palousemindfulness.com.

Share This