How can you develop emotional resilience to improve your life?

The numerous demands of modern living can impact our well-being. Our ability to navigate and adapt to these demands will depend to some extent on our ‘emotional resilience’, but what is ‘emotional resilience’ and how can we improve our well-being and our ability to cope better when things go wrong?


Being resilient can be seen as our ability to ‘bounce back’ and function whilst meeting the challenges and changes we all face throughout our lives.  

What factors help promote emotional resilience?

A factor that can promote emotional resilience is an early environment that modelled good interpersonal skills where we learnt to communicate and develop an ability to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. It’s one we felt supported in, taught us a level of self-reliance and encouraged problem solving.

As adults we might also have developed the ability to be more pragmatic, flexible and adaptable if we judge a situation requires it. In fact having a history of mastering challenges can make us more resilient as it can help us gain skills and confidence in our abilities to deal with emotionally challenging problems.

Emotional resilience and the autonomic nervous system  

In addition to our upbringing the autonomic nervous system is also involved and knowing how this works can be used to our advantage. This system is responsible for regulating functions in our body such as our heartbeat and breathing. It’s automatic and outside of conscious awareness. The two branches of interest here are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. 

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight flight freeze (FFF) response which is the wiring involved in our survival instinct. It runs in the background without our awareness like the apps on our phone. Our brains are constantly receiving information from our environment, scanning for danger and kicks in the FFF in response to it. This is an automatic lightning fast reflex that gets the body ready to respond fast to perceived danger.  

It feels very uncomfortable because it has an impact on our body, for example our hearts starts to beat faster, our mouth goes dry, and our body releases hormones and makes us feel anxious. It can be activated by a life threatening situation such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car but also during stressful situations such as being late for work, missing a deadline or our thoughts.

Some of us find these feelings so uncomfortable that a short term fix is to stop doing anxiety provoking activities. If we are very anxious a lot of the time we can get stuck in FFF. The problem with being here too often is the side effects; such as burn out, feelings fatigued, wired, have difficulty sleeping and a reduced ability to concentrate.   

As a counter to this the parasympathetic nervous system puts us into a resting and digesting state and dampens and slows us down when the threat has passed by re-stabilising the bodily systems. It will calm us down and reduce anxiety. The more resilient amongst us will spend more time in this state. This can be seen as an ideal state where the body can repair itself. We enjoy life more!  

How to improve your emotional resilience

We now know that emotional resilience is our ability to bounce back quickly from a threatening situation whether real or imagined. We have seen the impact the ANS can have on our emotional lives such as being on high alert all the time which can make us feel anxious and tired. Now let’s see how we can use this knowledge to our advantage and move into a sense of calmness, at least some of the time. 

It’s good to know we do have the capacity to improve the situation by learning additional skills. Developing our resilience can take work and practice but can also be very beneficial and can have the potential to be life changing.   

The importance of finding time to relax

We still need to be able to jump out of the way of an oncoming car but for those times when it’s not life threatening taking time out to learn how to relax through breathing and mindfulness can calm our nervous system and counteract the FFF response. These techniques can act as a buffer and helps to alleviate stress and anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down.

Consciously making the out breath longer than the in breath will indicate to your nervous system that we are not in danger, give it a try. This practice doesn’t have to take up vast amounts of time, five minutes each day can help. Also just being present with what we are doing rather than being on automatic pilot can have benefits; being mindful like this can help stop negative ruminations. Free phone apps such as Headspace and Insight Timer offer relaxation practices.    

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated we lose the ability to problem solve as well and our mind can go blank. These practices will send us back to the rest phase where we can see things more clearly, less rabbit in the headlight! Like any new skill this will take practice.

Catching your thoughts

Our thoughts impact the way we feel. If we want to improve our resilience we can begin by being more aware of our thoughts especially when we get carried away with visualising the worst case scenario.  

When something happens that makes us feel anxious we can write our thoughts and emotions in a notepad or in our phone. As we begin to notice them we may notice our inner critic comes into focus, we might also notice we are hard and critical on ourselves.  

We can improve our emotional resilience by reframing these thoughts by challenging their validity; a thought doesn’t make something true. Sometimes we can underestimate our ability to manage a situation which can make us feel hopeless and reflecting on our strengths can change the way we feel about ourselves. 

It can be helpful to reflect one the good things in our life such as the things that make us happy or content and ask ourselves: what are we grateful for?   

Having self-compassion and accepting ourselves is a good place to start. We can ask ourselves; are we being kind to ourselves and others. What nice things can we say about ourselves today and building a network of supportive friends can be of benefit too. Trying these as part of a daily practice can change your life.  

I wish you well.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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