GRACE'S MUSINGS: What is emotional resilience – and why does it matter?

It’s been a tough 18 months for lots of us. We’ve faced adversity, loss and all the grief that comes after. It might be Covid-related issues, or family problems, or work stress, or simply the stuff that arises as we get older – but sometimes it feels like it’s almost too much to bear. Hard times are inevitable, though – they’re just part of being alive. So how do we cope? 

I’ve found it helps to develop strategies. I try and face what’s happening with fortitude and grace. That’s what emotional resilience is all about. 

It can be hard not to feel like a victim, like we’re being discriminated against, when bad things happen. But look at it this way: have you ever lost someone you loved? Had your heart broken? Been through a divorce? Had a miscarriage? An abortion? Been made redundant? Dealt with mental illness, or disability, or dementia?

I’m pretty sure you’ve answered “Yes” to at least one of those questions. Bad things happen to all of us. It’s the nature of being alive. It’s how we deal with it that matters: how we stop feeling like we’ve been singled out for misery, and overwhelmed by the journey ahead. Instead, we have to work out a way of being able to participate in the grieving process. We need hope. We need to see light at the end of the tunnel. Emotional resilience is key to all of that.

There are ways you can grow your emotional resilience. I’ve been looking at the work of Dr Lucy Hone, who is a co-director at the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience and a research associate at the AUT university in Auckland. She has identified three strategies that she put to use when she suffered a huge personal tragedy. And they really work.

1 Remember that suffering is part of life
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you welcome suffering with open arms – that would be crazy. But more emotionally resilient people realise that we all go through tough times. That knowledge means you feel less like a victim. You don’t ask “Why me?” when something bad happens. It’s more “Why not me?”. It’s just your turn in the barrel.

We live in an age where we’re bombarded with images of apparently perfect lives on social media. But that’s not real. The opposite is true for most of us at any given time. Wise up. Remember that life is hard.

2 Choose where to direct your attention
Focus on the things you can change and learn to accept the things you can’t. This sounds tough, but it’s a skill you can learn. We all know how easy it is to zone in on the bad stuff. We’re hardwired always to be on high alert. Once that meant looking out for the sabre-toothed tiger that was about to eat us. Now we’re assailed by more modern problems (deadlines, bills), but our brain responds in just the same way: by dialling up the stress response.

Concentrate on the good things around you. You might choose to do that with a gratefulness practice – listing three things every day you can be thankful for. It’s not just hippy-dippy nonsense, it has proper evidence-based research behind it. Psychologists call it “benefit-finding”: making an intentional effort to focus on the good in your life. It’s part of my morning routine.

3 Ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?”

This sounds like a no-brainer – but how often do you ask yourself this question? If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’ll know what a powerful tool it can be. You can use it in lots of different contexts –for example: “Is the way I’m thinking helping me or harming me in sorting out my marriage? In recovering from that knee operation? In dealing with my grief?”

Asking yourself this question is giving you control over your decision-making. It’s putting you back in the driver’s seat. Is one more glass of wine, another cigarette, an hour on social media, helping you or harming you? And what can you do instead that will make a difference to the way you feel?

These strategies aren’t always easy and they won’t make things instantly better. But thinking this way really does help you to develop emotional resilience. It allows you to live, rather than go under. You can come back from adversity. We will all have moments in life where something terrible happens and we don’t know how we will ever recover. But it is possible. Remember: struggle is a normal part of human existence. We just have to find a way through.

Listen to Dr Lucy Hone’s brilliant TED Talk if you have 15 minutes to spare. Her advice is amazing – and her story will make you realise how important emotional resilience can be.

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