What is emotional resilience and, just as important, how do you develop it?
I bet we all have days when we don’t feel emotionally resilient. As the day comes to an end, we feel thrashed, and sleep doesn’t come easily. Perhaps we dread the next day, because we fear it may not be any better.
What happened? Someone denigrated our efforts on an important project at work. Perhaps we had yet another encounter with someone who always seems unpleasant or snippy. Maybe we’re in the middle of a trying family situation. The list is endless, really. And we need to find a way to crest the waves of stress more easily.
Coach Leo Widrich (@LeoWid) acknowledges that emotional resilience isn’t a skill acquired overnight, but he believes that a practical understanding of how the brain functions can put us on a path that will help us “stay present under challenging circumstances and remain positive during stressful days.”
Here are some things you need to know about your brain to help you get started:
- It’s all about your body. Widrich notes that most of our signals—some 80% in fact—go from the body to the brain. Our vagus nerve runs from our gut through our heart and lungs, to our face and ear canal and into our brain. The vagus nerve is the source of bodily sensations, that sinking feeling you get when things aren’t going well, for example. And, on a more a positive note, it’s also the transmitter of happiness. Mr. Widrich suggests that you ask yourself what your body is trying to tell you and “hold space for that experience,” instead of trying to exert control over it.
- Be aware of your amygdala. This tricky little guy is “sometimes called the emotion center of our brains,” and it can kick in, in a bad way, when someone criticizes you and you respond with anger or feel fear or anxiety. Your amygdala becomes active and takes over from your neocortex—the thinking part of your brain—and you say or do stupid things. This is sometimes referred to as “amygdala hijack.” Mr. Widrich notes that Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, has written a whole book about “flipping your lid.”
- Our voices provide important signals to our brains. It appears that our brains rely on the emotional content of our voices to assess our safety. I remember watching a documentary about the Iditarod and hearing one of the participants talk about the high-pitched voice she used to praise her dogs. Mr. Widrich says, “The safety signal was a medium to slightly high frequency pitched voice. This is often the voice we make when talking to babies, where we naturally raise our voices and speak making cooing sounds. It calms and soothes them, as it does for us.” Interesting, eh?
- Understand how stress changes brain chemistry. This is a really important one. The evidence is out: being in a stressful environment diverts your brain’s resources. “To keep the body running, the brain removes and even shrinks areas of your mind that you use for goal setting, being creative, and making decisions.” Mr. Widrich uses the term “prolonged,” which I interpret as “chronic.” I’m guessing that refers to the stress we face daily, the stress we have grown to think of as normal, the stress that the late, great Gilda Radner, in her guise as Roseanne Roseannadanna referred to as “It’s always something.”
Mr. Widrich believes you can cultivate emotional resilience by understanding how your brain works. He says, “Next time you feel stressed, anxious, or worried, think about it in the context of these four facts. You might find that it helps you deal with it better.” I believe that understanding your brain, coupled with a simple technique such as counting to 10 before you open your mouth or taking a short walk when you feel frightened or angry can help, too.