Five Skills for Building Emotional Resilience

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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

While most of us are mindful of the importance of physical resilience supported by behaviors such as adequate sleep and healthy food, fewer are conscious of managing emotional resilience, an equally essential element of overall health and quality of life. Resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from stressful situations, is essential in all forms for addicts, those affected by addiction, and others who experience significant stressors such as a chronic illness.

It is widely assumed that resilience is an innate character trait that one either has or does not have. In my experience, this is far from accurate. I view resilience as the accumulation of countless beliefs and decisions which, when taken in totality, comprise a set of skills that help us make sense of and manage events in our lives. While it is certainly true that we often have no choice about things that happen to us, we always have the power to select our reaction, taking steps that not only affect our interpretation of those events but, if they are negative, bolster our recovery from them, as well.

There are many ways to build our emotional resilience, and five of my favorites are listed here. While this is not a complete list, incorporating these practices will certainly have beneficial effects.

  1. Develop a Strong Social Network

Chronic loneliness is a serious condition in our society aggravated by stigma, shame, and physical conditions such as addiction. A robust social network counteracts these effects, improving health outcomes, quality of life, and even lifespan. The power of social connection is increasingly being documented as an essential component of healthy living. Recovery groups have long understood that interaction with others and the development of trust and vulnerability are keys to healing. Whether through the fellowship after meetings, having coffee, or even a web-based support group, social connection creates the real foundation of resilience.

  1. Develop a Sense of Purpose

The chaos of addiction, the all-consuming toll of physical illness, and other chronic situations can hijack every waking moment of one’s life. Just getting through the day becomes the primary focus. Recovery from addiction brings not only more free time but a yearning to find meaning in one’s pain and experiences, something accomplished by the development of a sense of purpose (or purposes). Life-altering events have transformative power by which people find meaning in different ways such as committing themselves to service or even changing careers to incorporate their own experiences into something meaningful that will benefit not only others but themselves.

  1. Practice Optimism

Psychologists recognize the role of cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing or selectively seeing only unfortunate events as the basis of a negative worldview. This is sometimes called negativity bias. Simply put, our brains must process much more data than we can consciously manage, so the information that we actually notice is a selected set based on our habits over time, and it is by no means a complete one. When immersed in negativity bias it can be impossible to see the good things around us. By becoming mindful of our thoughts, including judgments and self-talk, we can begin to consciously change our worldview to incorporate a more balanced understanding of our lives, seeing both the good and the bad. This, in turn, has a direct impact on our health and emotional resilience.

  1. Nurture Yourself

Everyone is aware that self-care is essential, yet few seem to find the time to practice it. Compared to the rest of the world, Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and, in general, are more productive, but this comes at a great price. For example, most people accumulate a significant level of sleep debt, don’t find the time to eat as healthy as they would like, and simply don’t commit enough time to leisure. Of course, physical self-care is important but there are other aspects of nurturing oneself, as well. These include emotional self-nurturing, which can be as undemanding as a mindful walk, going outside to connect with the sky, or petting one’s dog or cat. These simple actions allow our brains to shift gears, providing much-needed balance. Spiritual nurturing is important, as well, through actions such as forgiveness, self-compassion, and developing a sense of something greater than oneself.

  1. Embrace Change

Everyone, at least sometimes, has difficulty handling the inevitable changes that occur in life. Whether due to the natural process of aging, irreparable damage to a relationship, or the irreversible consequences of a physical diagnosis such as HIV, it is common to avoid acceptance by either not recognizing the situation or becoming frozen in inaction. Leaning into change is counterintuitive but a few simple steps can help. First, remember that taking no action is itself a decision with real consequences, often worsening the problem. It is important to consider the situation and make a conscious decision, which may turn out to be taking no action at all, but that decision will have been made with intention. Such decision making is facilitated by seeking advice from trusted friends or family who can help us discover new perspectives, leading to solutions we may not have been aware of before. Finally, it is essential to develop a tolerance for uncertainty. While there is a false reassurance in viewing the world as static and unchanging, transformation is, in fact, the only thing we can be sure of.

There are other ways to increase emotional resilience such as increasing belief in yourself, practicing gratitude, and becoming more mindful of the role each of us plays in our own life events. It is through consistent practice of these skills that we all build not only our emotional resilience but our overall health and quality of life.

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW is a substance abuse expert, certified sex therapist, and clinical psychotherapist in private practice. He is the author of “Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery.” In his practice, Dr. Fawcett addresses a wide range of concerns, including addiction, trauma, and issues related to chronic illness, especially HIV/AIDS. He is a national trainer for the HIV Spectrum project of the National Association of Social Workers and presents workshops for professionals both nationally and internationally. He was a founder and Chair of the South Florida Methamphetamine Task Force, a nationally recognized coalition that addressed the meth epidemic through training, prevention and intervention. He went on to found Meth & Men South Florida, recently rebranded as No More Meth, a not-for-profit endeavor that provides a variety of community information and clinical services on a sliding scale.