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5 (neuroscientist-approved) ways to build emotional resilience

Emotional resilience, aka, the ability to withstand the highs and lows that come with life, varies a lot from person to person and even moment to moment.

Your starting point or "natural" level of emotional resilience is affected by your age, your own personal history, and your current environment. Fortunately, this level isn’t fixed at birth (or any age), and you can develop greater emotional resilience through effort and practice.

And it’s an ability that’s well worth prioritising in all ambits of life—studies show it can positively influence work satisfaction, and engagement, overall wellbeing, and even lower depression levels. Which makes perfect sense, as resilience is a tool that helps us manage challenges (of all shapes and sizes) more easily. Because while you often can’t change what happens, you can change how you think and feel about it.

Emotional resilience is especially crucial in moments of change (organizational or otherwise).

What emotional resilience isn’t

It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Being resilient doesn’t mean difficulties and problems don’t affect you (after all, you’re only human). And resilience definitely shouldn’t be used as a way to blame yourself or somehow take responsibility for setbacks and challenges that originate in barriers and events beyond your control.

Resilience is simply another resource in your toolkit for dealing with life, as it happens. Keep reading for some tips on how to better develop this skill set (and cope with challenges as they come).

A 5-step roadmap to resilience

A woman sits in a field with her face turned around from the camera.

Kelli McClintock via Unsplash

While we're calling this list of ways to build your emotional resilience a roadmap, it's important to note that these steps don't have to be followed in any particular order. Feel free to start with whatever appeals to you most, and go from there.

1. Become more aware (emotionally).

Emotional self-awareness is understanding what you’re feeling, and why. A good place to start is recording your thoughts. This technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy involves jotting down your thoughts and labeling them as helpful or unhelpful.

It can also be useful to identify what is and isn't in your power to change more generally. Because if you can't do anything about something, it's best to move on and make the best of the situation.

Another method that’s been shown to be useful in reconnecting with your thoughts and feelings is mindfulness meditation. By spending time calmly observing and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings as they come and go, you’ll be more prepared to identify (and handle them) when life is far from calm.

A bonus? When you’re more in tune with how your own emotions affect you, you’re more likely to be able to understand when emotions are affecting the people around you, too.

2. Work on goals (and follow-through).

Being perseverant and trusting the process of achieving your goals can make a big difference when it comes to how you face any obstacles that will inevitably come up.

Committing to a goal that’s meaningful to you, and following it through to the end will not only give you a sense of purpose while you’re chasing results, but it’ll boost your confidence in what you’re capable of achieving. Just remember that exactly what a meaningful goal is depends on you, whether that means taking a daily walk with your canine companion or finally writing your novel this year.

When working towards goals, it’s advisable to break down the big goal into smaller short-term tasks to make it easier to achieve. For more practical tips to help you pursue your goals, see our blog posts on building habits and going after your goals (without getting stressed).

3. Have mercy (on yourself).

When facing difficult situations, sometimes you just need to cut yourself a little slack and feel your feelings. Show yourself the same compassion and understanding you’d show a friend in  circumstances.

One way to lean into this idea is with a Loving kindness meditation (like the one in Foundations). Linked to improved mood and positivity, you may find it to be particularly helpful when you’re feeling down or angry with yourself.

And when you have the emotional bandwidth, you can even extend that sense of compassion and patience to others.

4. Find the positive.

We know seeking out the positives in life is easier said than done. Especially when those dark clouds loom. But chances are, even in the worst of times, there are silver linings to be found.

When things are going poorly, positive self-talk can feel a bit ridiculous, but studies show feeding your brain upbeat thoughts reduces interfering thoughts and increases focus. And by reframing our thoughts more positively, ultimately we change how we feel, and eventually how we behave for the better. And when our actions are more positive, it further cements our positive thinking and completes the circle, reinforcing the loop of positive thinking, feelings and actions.

Another way to embrace positivity? With gratitude. There’s a strong connection between gratitude and wellbeing—gratitude journaling has been found to improve sleep quality, and may even lower the risk of heart disease and symptoms of depression.

For more tips on focusing on what you can be grateful for, see our post on choosing gratitude in difficult times.

5. Build up your support system.

The one thing most resilient people have in common? A well-developed support system. People who are able to bounce back after life’s hiccoughs, large and small, have made a point of building up their support systems.

They have a strong network of friends, coworkers, and relatives they know they can contact and depend upon when they need a hand or a kind word. They’ve also taken up mental wellbeing techniques and tactics that they find helpful. For some, that may be regular exercise, rain or shine (hello, endorphins!). For others, a daily journaling practice makes all the difference when it comes to managing their mood. Still others use mental wellbeing apps and online tools to handle their stress and build their resilience.

What’s important here is finding multiple ways to make sure you have the support you need on good days and bad.

What are some ways you’re working on building your emotional resilience? Share your experience with us at foundations@koahealth.com.