Emotional resilience is something which we gradually build throughout our lives, it is not something we are born with or without, and it starts to build in childhood. Someone who has emotional resilience does not simply block out or ‘repress’ negative emotions, but learns how to cope with them, and process them so that they do not cause lasting damage to their lives. They are not afraid to seek support from family and friends, and usually learn to focus on positive outcomes. If the development of emotional resilience becomes disturbed, then people may resort to using unhealthy coping strategies in order to deal with their fears and other problems they face. This can then lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression, and other psychological problems.
The charity ‘Mind’ defines emotional resilience as:
“The ability to adapt and bounce back when something difficult happens in your life.”
Most people develop resilience and it is common, resilient people feel just as much negative emotion and stress, however this distress is usually only temporary, and the more resilient an individual is the better their coping strategies will have become. The American Psychological Association (2010) gives us the following definition:
“The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.”
They do not try to ignore negative emotions or hide from stressful situations, they learn how to deal with them instead, and so they become stronger people. As the old saying goes ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. So people with resilience never give up.
Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) tell us that theory suggests people who are emotionally resilient are able to ‘bounce back’ effectively in a relatively short period of time. A major factor in this is that they will usually maintain a positive outlook on life, realising that there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on the negative situation they face. Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) used a multi-method approach in 3 different studies:
“…to predict that resilient people use positive emotions to rebound from, and find positive meaning in, stressful encounters. Mediational analyses revealed that the experience of positive emotions contributed, in part, to participants’ abilities to achieve efficient emotion regulation” (P.320).
Participants were able to find positive meaning in negative situations, and showed faster cardiovascular recovery after experiencing negative emotional states.
Emotionally resilient people have close relationships with family and friends, and are able to utilise these strong connections for help and support when they need it. These close relationships also help to remind them of good feelings such as love, empathy and compassion. When discussing the resilience of refugees, Simich and Andermann (2014) explain adaptational systems that can really help people in the “face of stressors, are emotional and social support among family and community members” and “open and honest communication”. (P.20) Emotional resilience is cultivated when we help others that are in need of our help, and the knowledge that we will have support when we are going through the worst times in our own lives.
A self-reliant person who does not need anyone else and keeps ‘themselves to themselves’, is not showing emotional resilience. This type of person is more likely to use an avoidant coping strategy, which may lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression later on.
People with emotional resilience are likely to have experienced adversity in the past, and are able to utilise learnt coping strategies, in order to deal with the current situation they face. The degree of emotional resilience a person has will usually correlate to their level of life experience. So resilient people become very self-aware, and they are aware that any suffering or trauma they are currently experiencing is temporary, so they do not allow it to take over their permanent identity. Beardslee (1989) explores in detail how 3 separate studies, on subjects surviving childhood cancer, adolescents with parents suffering serious affective disorders, and civil rights workers, demonstrate a strong connection between self-understanding and resilience.
A self-reliant person who does not need anyone else and keeps ‘themselves to themselves’, is not showing emotional resilience. This type of person is more likely to use an avoidant coping strategy, which can cause more psychological disturbance in the long run. Sanderson (2012) tells us that:
“People who try to avoid thinking about difficult thoughts show increased physiological arousal, which may in turn lead to more health problems.” (P.426).
An example of this is the way in which different people cope with bereavement, and this can be a sign of how strong their emotional resilience has become.
Sanderson (2012) explains that there are differing views and research findings, as to whether confronting a loss head-on is associated with positive adjustment, and if it provides a person with long term psychological well-being. In one study men who avoided thinking of a loss had more maladjustment after 2 years than those who did not (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991). And in support of this Kim (2009) found that people trying to cope with the death of a spouse, who found meaning in and were able to accept the death, showed lower levels of anger. However Bonanno et al (1995) found people that initially deny or suppress sad feelings after losing a spouse, later on showed fewer symptoms of grief.
As most research and knowledge on how adults cope in the event of trauma or loss, in the past has come from people who wanted treatment or were in great distress, theorists have viewed resilience to loss to be either pathological or rare (Bonanno, 2004). In contrast Bonanno explains that:
“…resilience in the face of loss or potential trauma is more common than is often believed, and that there are multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.” (P.20)
The degree of emotional resilience a person has will usually correlate to the amount of education and life experience they have had. The more diverse a person’s experiences the more opportunities they have had to grow, and people who are more highly educated tend to be more resilient. Neill and Dias (2001) showed that the controlled exposure to challenge over 22 days enhanced the resilience of 41 young adults, with large increases in positive resilience being reported. However it is also important to note that the level of interpersonal support between participants also had an effect on results.
Emotional resilience starts to develop when we are children and continues all the way through our lives, it is a dynamic process of positive change. The more we have had to adapt, learn about our own strengths and weaknesses, help others in need and fight through adversity, the more resilient we become.
Resilience is built from confronting our fears and resisting the temptation to avoid them. As one of history’s great women Eleanor Roosevelt (1960) explains:
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ The danger lies in refusing to face the fear…” (P.29).
Here we could use the fear of flying as an example, which can be caused by not facing the fear of claustrophobia, the problem usually becomes bigger in a person’s mind the longer it is avoided. This is because they are negatively cultivating the fear associated with whatever they are afraid of, and the fear becomes so great that a person is completely overwhelmed by it. In some cases they cannot even entertain the thought of it, and a phobia develops.
The good news is however that something called neuroplasticity, means that our brains can change and grow at any point in our lives, “structural remodelling of human brain tissue is known to occur following long-term (weeks) acquisition of a new skill” (Sagi et al, 2012). So we always have the potential to develop more resilience by learning new skills and thinking in more positive and productive ways.