Yes, emotional resilience can be taught. Here’s how
My final year school exams were a blur of stress, nerves, and fear. I felt the weight of my future firmly pressed down on my shoulders, with how well I performed determining whether I had a good or terrible adult life in store. Kindly, but stoically, my Mum tried to put my feelings into perspective by telling me that “This is all part of character building”.
Her logic stems from a long line of thinking that whatever doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. In the world of business, we value resilience as something you need if you want to be successful, particularly in a world that constantly insists on throwing us curve balls.
But what does it take to be emotionally resilient? Is it something that we build up through experiencing various stresses or does it come from some inherent part of our personality?
Both certainly contribute, but regardless of the traits and experiences we have in reserve, emotional resilience is something we can learn.
What does it mean to be emotionally resilient?
“Someone who is emotionally resilient looks at challenges as a place of opportunity. They go towards that situation. Someone who is less resilient might see this as fear, and might withdraw and react in a way that isn’t in their best interest,” says neuroscience practitioner and leadership coach Dominique Stillman, who provides emotional resilience training through her company, DS Consulting.
Our capability to ‘bounce back’ in this way depends on a variety of factors, including our own mental strength and the supportive resources available to us across our lives. Emotional resilience training seeks to teach us skills and techniques for managing ourselves within this mix: our perceptions, our habits, and how we react to certain situations.
Observe and reflect
One of the first things Dominique looks at when teaching emotional resilience is to establish awareness of how someone responds to stress, which is linked to learned behaviour in the brain. “I get them to start noticing these responses, so that they are ahead of the game when they start to have [negative] reactions,” she says. “I go into what’s happening in their brain, and how their brain has created automatic responses over time.
“You have the same physical reaction to things you’re afraid of to things you’re excited about — for example, if you’re about to go on a date versus when you’re about to go for a job interview. It’s about how you choose to respond to those situations.”
“There are certain chemicals that are important for emotional resilience. If we can actively manage the balance of chemicals in our bodies and brains then we are more able to adapt”
Dominique runs an exercise in her programmes that prompts participants to look at different ways they are affected by a given issue, starting with the way they are thinking about it. “You put an issue in the middle, for example, working from home if you aren’t used to it. First, you look at the cognitive aspects: what are people telling themselves about this?” she says. “You are what you think.”
Research has widely associated self-awareness and reflective ability with resilience at work, noting that these practices enable us to explore our emotional reactions, doubts, assumptions, and beliefs, and consider how these can impact our wellbeing and performance.
Embrace the chemistry
For Claire Dale, emotional resilience training practitioner and co-author of book Physical Intelligence, the most important aspect of teaching resilience is understanding the chemistry responsible for the ways we function as humans. She says: “Right now, in all of our bodies and brains, there are hundreds of chemicals racing around — neurotransmitters and hormones — that largely dictate how we think, how we feel, how we speak, and how we behave.
“There are certain chemicals that are important for emotional resilience. If we can actively manage the balance of chemicals in our bodies and brains then we are more able to adapt.”
Movement is one way that we can manage this balance. “When we move, we start to let in two chemicals called acetylcholine, which is a relaxing, renewal chemical, and then the other that comes quickly is serotonin,” Claire says. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is sometimes known as the ‘happy chemical’, for its contribution to happiness and wellbeing.
“A physical action is really strong,” adds Dominique, whose practice also acknowledges the importance of movement. “For your brain to be resilient and work at its best, you need to look after it. Sometimes people are stressed because they haven’t been doing enough movement or eating well.”
Building up these skills and habits are important, but how resilient we are also depends on our support networks and the communities we are a part of. Research commissioned by the UK government Office for Science calls this an “ecological model of resilience”, where our resilience is a factor of resources both within and around us.
Our networks can help to cushion the effects of failure and to develop the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others. “I encourage sharing, this builds resilience because it makes people feel safe. This creates a mental memory for the brain to draw from,” says Dominique.
“We learn best when we fail, and if someone is comfortable and supported then this can help us build resilience. Sharing vulnerability is really important — if you share vulnerability then it’s coming from a place of courage.”
“The interdependent nature of human beings is something that we forget,” says Claire. “Teams need to work together in order to get better results. We need networks. What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger — but you need help along the way.”
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